Cycling champion Lance Armstrong has been an inspiration to many people, including myself.
I mean, how could you dislike a person who has been the prototype of an all-American hero, overcoming a life-threatening illness and great odds to achieve unprecedented athletic success?
Armstrong survived testicular cancer to win a record seven-straight Tour de France cycling championships. This is no easy feat considering that the 21-day event covers 2,000 miles on some of western Europe’s most challenging terrain, including passing through the mountain chains of the Alps and Pyrenees.
Along with that accomplishment, the now-retired bicycle racer founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which aids others affected by cancer. In addition to raising awareness about the disease, that organization has generated more than $325 million from sales of 87 million yellow “Livestrong” bracelets that you see around so much.
Armstrong’s own fight with cancer was as legendary as his prowess on the bike. In this very month in 1996, Armstrong learned he had stage 3 testicular cancer, including a tumor that had metastasized to the brain, abdomen and lungs. This required both brain and testicular surgery as well as extensive chemotherapy, with his chances of survival put at less than 40 percent.
Despite that, Armstrong, who was 25 at the time of his diagnosis, not only survived, but was able to rise to the top of the cycling world. He remained there year after year, beginning with his first Tour de France championship in 1999 and continuing to his last in 2005.
But a dark cloud of scandal surrounded the accomplishment in the form of persistent allegations that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs during those glory years. That cloud grew even larger this past week.
Hundreds of pages of evidence supporting the allegations of doping against the famed cyclist were released Wednesday, offering details of the wrongdoing he had been suspected of for years. Fellow competitors say Armstrong not only used the drugs himself, but supplied them to others on the tour.
This has left me with the realization that, as hard as it might be to believe, the legacy of Lance Armstrong was built on fraud, plain and simple.
It was one thing to learn that legendary baseball players such as Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens were on steroids at key times in their careers. But even as the charges continued to swirl around Armstrong, I always hoped that his case would be different and he somehow would be exonerated.
“Say it ain’t so, Lance,” was the thought crossing my mind each time a new allegation arose about Armstrong. One thing that always bothered me was the cycling icon continually defending himself with the argument that he had never failed a drug test — rather than equivocally denying he had ever used performance-enhancing substances.
With Wednesday’s release of the damning report, that hope seems all but dead, and the clean-cut Texan has been exposed as just another cheater.
Strangely, in the wake of this latest disclosure, some fans are saying so what if Lance Armstrong used drugs in order to compete at a higher level? To them, it doesn’t matter if he bent the rules to win.
I do not share that sentiment.
While I’ll never be accused of resembling a world-class athlete and knowing what goes through their minds in terms of competitive pressures, I would think there is some lingering appreciation for personal satisfaction.
It’s one thing to win a game, or a championship, knowing it was the result of hard work, dedication and personal sacrifice — long hours in the gym or miles of road work. But how could a so-called world-class athlete feel good about himself or herself knowing that his or her success was due to something they got from a bottle or a syringe?
I suppose the Lance Armstrong situation is simply further evidence of a condition dominating the American sports scene over the past 20 years or so, in which the important thing is winning. Period.
It’s all well and good to aspire to be a success, but this should be accomplished the right way, whether in real life or athletics. American consumers have witnessed enough cheating going on in Washington and on Wall Street, so they ought to be able to demand a certain integrity with sports — even in a culture that puts winning above all else.
Going forward, the Lance Armstrong situation shows we should be careful about who we choose as our heroes.
This includes someone whose willpower and inner strength were enough to overcome a deadly disease — but who had to rely on illegal drugs for a bike race.
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 719-1924 or email@example.com.