If you haven’t seen it in the headlines yet, you soon will: Lance Armstrong, the celebrated American cyclist, has been stripped of his record seven straight Tour de France titles. The ruling became official yesterday after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a mountainous, 164-page report last week with overwhelming evidence that Armstrong used illegal performance-enhancing drugs during his championship years.
Sports fans can recite this tale by heart: a star athlete is accused of using performance enhancing drugs, putting his or her many accomplishments into question and crushing the hearts of millions of fans in the process.
We’ve seen it time and time again. We’ve seen Marion Jones forfeit the five medals she proudly won for America in the 2004 Sydney Summer Olympics. We’ve seen the asterisk placed next to the 73 home runs Barry Bonds smashed in the 2001 baseball season. We’ve seen the unethical demise of Mark McGwire, Ben Johnson, Manny Ramirez and countless other athletes accused of steroids, human growth hormones or blood boosters.
For fans like myself, the legacies of Jones, Bonds and other doping athletes are scarred forever. They are nothing more than cheaters. They are disdainful symbols of how sport loses its purity and integrity. They are villains. They wronged us.
So, for Armstrong, we know what happens next in the common script, right?
In one respect, yes. On top of their decision to rescind his Tour titles, the International Cycling Union, or UCI, has banned him from cycling for life. Armstrong’s biggest sponsors, including Nike and Anheuser-Busch, dropped his contracts due to the allegations. And above all, fans around the world have rightfully scorned him as a liar, a fraud and an enabler of doping.
His cycling legacy is undoubtedly tarnished forever, as it should be.
But here’s why Armstrong’s story is different than any athlete who has come before him: The world is a better place because he doped.
Fifteen years ago, after surviving testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain, he began the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which is now known as LiveStrong.
The world is a better place because LiveStrong has raised nearly $500 million dollars to educate cancer patients and fund cancer research. It’s a better place because 2.3 million individuals with cancer have received individual counseling using LiveStrong’s resources. It’s a better place because the organization has lobbied relentlessly for cancer research and irrevocably increased cancer awareness with its iconic yellow bracelet and countless charity bike rides.
It’s a better place because LiveStrong has given hope to the most hopeless disease facing humanity today.
In an ideal world, Armstrong would have never cheated in order to excel. But the cycling world is far from ideal.
According to the UCI, during Armstrong’s seven straight championships, 20 of the 21 riders who made the Tour de France podium have been directly linked to performance-enhancing drugs. From 1996 to 2010, 36 of 45 top cyclists were linked to doping. It’s a sport that makes the steroid era in baseball look like a shining gold standard of ethical sporting.
In a sport so replete with cheaters, Armstrong would never have been able to compete — let alone win seven straight Tours — if he avoided performance-enhancing drugs. And without those wins and his popularity that grew with each one, LiveStrong would have never had the incredible success it has enjoyed with Armstrong as its leading advocate and symbolic inspiration.
It’s a messy situation. Hotly debated questions and opinions will be heard in the coming weeks. Should we overlook Armstrong’s cheating because everyone else was doing it? Who is the rightful winner of those invalidated Tour titles? Should Armstrong be remembered as a fraud, or as a champion of cancer advocacy?
Frankly, though, these questions aren’t important. Armstrong could be a good person in a bad situation, or a bad person who ruined his sport forever. We don’t know, and we never will. And more importantly, it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that LiveStrong has bettered millions of lives suffering from cancer, and that it will continue to do so through education, advocacy and research funding in years to come.
When all is said and done, it’s not about the bike. It’s not about Armstrong. It’s not about the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in sports today. Rather, it’s about how LiveStrong’s mission transcends Armstrong, cycling and sport itself.
So let’s strip his medals, take away his endorsements, call him a fraud, judge him for being unethical. I’m all for that — he cheated and even coerced others to cheat with him. But let’s also realize that, whether we like it or not, the world is a better place because he did.