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October 26, 2012

Forget about the bike: It’s time to give up on Lance Armstrong

When the news broke earlier this month about the extent of Lance Armstrong’s doping regime, a few unlikely heroes emerged. You have probably never heard of Scott Mercier or Christophe Bassons, but I can assure you that they both deserve much more of your respect than Armstrong does. They have no dramatic story to tell. They did not survive cancer and go on to become the (formerly) most decorated cyclist of all time. But they did what Armstrong couldn’t. They resisted the temptation to take performance-enhancing drugs. They saw through Armstrong’s story, and they stood up to him. I hope, after reading this, that you might be able to do the same.

Since winning his first Tour de France in 1999, Armstrong has been on the receiving end of near-constant accusations of doping. These accusations came to a head earlier this month when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released a 1000-plus-page document detailing its case against the Texan.

I do not have enough room here to go into the full details of the document (which is available for free online), but suffice it to say that I, having been a longtime defender of Armstrong, am convinced of his guilt and am writing under the assumption that he was guilty of doping throughout his career.

One of the most popular defenses of Armstrong’s drug use, an argument I have used in the past, goes something like this: everyone was doping, and doing drugs was the only way to level the playing field. This argument is, more or less, true. Doping was a big part of professional cycling throughout Armstrong’s career. For a young rider, performance-enhancing drugs had a very powerful allure and seemed to many to be the only way to compete, the only way to pursue the career to which they had devoted their lives.

I have a lot of sympathy for those who fell prey to this temptation and will not criticize any rider for choosing to try performance-enhancing drugs. Yes, it is a form of cheating and cheating is wrong, but the pressure placed on a young cyclist to dope is too complex for someone in my position to understand. As much as I’d like to think I could, I cannot say with any certainty that I would be able to resist the temptation to dope in the same situation and will not, therefore, condemn those who did.

What Armstrong did, though, goes well beyond deciding to dope.

Armstrong did not use performance-enhancing drugs because, in his innocence, he felt that it was the only way to compete. Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs because, in his ruthlessness, he realized that if he was going to win, he needed to dope, he needed his teammates to dope with him, and if they weren’t willing to do so, they weren’t going to be his teammates anymore.

Armstrong, as the leader of his team, abused his power. He threatened to kick riders off his team if they didn’t adhere to the doping regime he had assigned them. After witnesses began to testify against Armstrong, he threatened them, using his growing celebrity status and the power this gave him to make their lives as difficult as possible. There is an entire chapter in the USADA’s report devoted to Armstrong’s attempts to suppress the truth by obstructing the due legal processes and by intimidating witnesses.

Armstrong is still arguably the most talented cyclist of his generation and his battle against cancer is an inspiration to millions of people across the world. But his credibility as a cyclist, and as a role model, has been irreparably damaged. From everything I have read—and there is too much of it to be dismissed as sour grapes—the only conclusion I can draw is that Armstrong is, to put it simply, a bad person.

He has lost my respect. Of course, there is no particular reason that Armstrong should care about this. He doesn’t know who I am, I’m sure he never will, and, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter if he cares about what I think about him or not. But there are those, like me, whom Armstrong will never know or hear about, who still think that Armstrong deserves all the respect I once had for him. This, I can’t help but think, is wrong, and I would be happy if I could change a few people’s minds on the matter.

Armstrong is unique among sports people in that his image is defined just as much by what he has done outside of sport as by what he has done in it. His battle with cancer has always been a footnote to his success. Not only did he win the Tour de France, but he also did it after surviving a seemingly un-survivable disease. This fact seems to add a certain level of moral reinforcement to Armstrong’s achievements, as if his success in cycling were somehow more noteworthy because of what he went through outside of the sport.

It is certainly a great story to tell; everyone loves a comeback. But the fact of the matter is that Armstrong’s battle with cancer has nothing to do with his career as a professional cyclist; yet somehow, the two have become conflated.

Armstrong is well aware that his celebrity status owes much to his battle with cancer. Cycling is not a popular sport in the United States, but Armstrong put it on the map. He was able to do this because of his story. Now, Armstrong is a drug cheat, and the longer he continues to deny that fact, the longer he allows his fans to believe in a story that isn’t real. His refusal to come clean is shameful not only because it disrespects cycling as a sport, but also because it has allowed him to sustain the delusion that he is worth the reverence his story inspires in people. Not enough people in this country have adequate knowledge of Armstrong the cyclist to objectively decide whether he still deserves the seven Tour de France titles he was stripped of last week, but almost everyone in this country has adequate knowledge of Armstrong the story to give him the benefit of the doubt. This needs to change.

If you learn anything from Lance Armstrong, let it be this: bad people can do good things. Just don’t be so blinded by the good they do that you can’t see them for what they really are.

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