The Livestrong Myth: What the USADA’s report means about Lance Armstrong’s legacy

by Mr. Sheehy

There’s a scene in The Perfect Game that captures nicely what it is to be a little boy. The team, a Mexican little league squad from Monterey, feels discouraged and begins to doubt itself. To motivate them, the coach tells the kids they’re not a bunch of poor beginners, they’re the Brooklyn Dodgers. He then tells each of them to get back to their positions, one by one, calling them by the name of their Dodger counterpart. The kids eat it up and begin to play inspired baseball.

It’s tacky, but it’s completely true. I remember playing whiffle-ball not as a determined whiffle-baller, but as a mini-Dwight Evans, the Red Sox right fielder whose batting stance was a constant temptation to little mimics like me. Dare I admit in public that I thought it was okay to wear knee pads when I played basketball in fourth grade? How could I do such a thing? Because I was Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, and I lived in Celtic-territory, that’s how. We young boys operated in a world of fantasy and dreams: we clearly dreamed “that he is me” and we wanted to be like Mike.

As an adult I’ve not progressed too far beyond this pretending, though I have adapted it slightly. When I ride my bike, I admit to imitating the cadences and positions of particular riders; on steep inclines I’ll stand out of the saddle and pop the pedals like Alberto Contador, for example. Other times I’ll push myself to maintain a tougher pace on flat stretches, envisioning the determined time trials professional riders can call forth. It’s not quite the same thing as my childhood fantasies since I don’t consciously pretend to be these riders, but I certainly imitate and compare in an effort to bring out of myself a better performance. Of this I’m not embarrassed, as imitating masters is a time-proven technique for learning, whether it’s called apprenticeship or modeling or discipleship.

This cycling imitation is about the last vestige of my childhood imitations, though. I no longer see myself as comparable to baseball or basketball players, for I no longer play those sports. I can’t pretend to be Alexi Lalas scoring headers and stolidly defending for team USA. But I can ride my bike just like I could when I was 10 years old, when I would race it at warp speed around the Village Green, a quarter mile neighborhood loop; perhaps this is why I retain a boyish enthusiasm for professional cycling, an unadulterated fanaticism for road racing.

Since this obsession–let’s call it what it is, I suppose–is well known, a number of friends have asked me what my thoughts are about the Lance Armstrong revelations and allegations. In the end I’ve written quite a bit in emails, and I thought I’d compile some of my thoughts here, making my own public statement about Lance, a man whose riding I have loved to imitate but whose decayed character has finally turned me away.

I must say at first that I am convinced that people like me–that is, cycling fans–were so aware of the potential of all this that it’s hard to see it hurting the sport any more than the sport has already been hurt in the past; yet assuming that it’s all true, it’s amazing to me that Armstrong’s teams (from US Postal to Discovery to Astana) were able to keep all this system locked up so tight for so long. A student asked me the other day how the investigation got started and I realized I had no idea. That in itself is interesting–how does one get going on this? I suppose it begins with a rat like Floyd Landis, but there seem to be so many possibilities, and it is strange that it took this long for an operation so big to come to light. I remember many other teams getting busted during those years, French police raiding team cars and things of that nature, and Lance’s teams were going and going with it throughout it all. That’s amazing.

Regarding Armstrong himself, it has been years since I actually believed he was clean. A year or two back I read an article in Bicycling that convinced me he’d doped. In it Bill Strickland, a self-avowed Armstrong fan, takes us through his conviction that Lance cheated:

I don’t know, if you’re not already there, what might lead you to believe that Lance Armstrong doped. It wasn’t Floyd Landis for me, or the federal investigation, or any public revelation. My catalyst was another one of those statements that was never said by someone I never talked with. It was not from one of Armstrong’s opponents. It was not from anyone who will gain any clemency by affirming it under oath.

It was an admission that doping had occurred, one disguised so it could assume innocence but unmistakable to me in meaning.

I know it’s a “someone I trust told me and I can’t tell you who” admission, but since I don’t know Lance myself, it’s the best as I can do. Plus, it jived with my own judgment on Armstrong, an opinion I built from details I’d read about him, like the one slipped into an Outside article from 2003:

The Suburban’s doors open all at once and five man-boys clad in various hues of polyester pile out. Lance steps down from the driver’s seat—he can’t stand being a passenger, rarely lets anyone else take the wheel—and boosts himself into the back to change.

Perhaps I over interpreted, but I remember at the time I read the article that he seemed a bit impatient and controlling. That’s no big deal by itself, but it matched the feel I got from my reading of his book It’s Not about the Bike, which left me convinced he was exactly the kind of guy who would use performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)–a win-at-all-costs and to-heck-with-you-if-you-don’t like-me type, as I admitted here.

Yet even then, the things I’ve been reading about the doping ring that the USADA is saying his team ran . . . well that’s a whole new level of dirty. Not only are we talking every kind of drug or procedure available, but I’ve read articles this week (here’s an example) that detail how cycling has gotten into money laundering in order to help riders pay for all this stuff–Swiss bank accounts and the works–and it’s pretty clear that Armstrong’s teams took it all to a whole new level during his run at the Tour. The average person will not take the time to look at all these things, but one article at VeloNews tours part of the USADA document and shows how intentional the work of Armstrong’s teams was, particularly at the beginning of his time with US Postal. This quote from a representative portion of the USADA document is typical:

At the end of the 1998 season Lance had complained to Jonathan Vaughters that Celaya was too conservative in the way he dispensed doping products. Armstrong’s comment about Dr. Celaya was along the lines of, the team “might as well race clean, he wants to take your temperature to give you even a caffeine pill.”

The pressure for teammates to dope seems to have come primarily from Armstrong, which makes sense given that he was the one wearing yellow jerseys. Another article at VeloNews, a shorter one than the one linked above, gives some of the details about how riders may have been pressured into doping and how cycling  wasn’t a level playing field. I waver on my thoughts about the “poor rider” angle expressed in that article and elsewhere: sometimes I have a total lack of pity and and sometimes a real sympathy, depending on how sincere I think the stories are. The most important thing about the article, however, is that it undercuts the little justification for watching cycling that I have been using for the last few years. That is, I’ve told myself that since they’re all doing it, what do I as a spectator care? I might be watching strangely medicated bionic men, but at least they’re all strangely medicated and bionic. I figured, “Hey, they’re on a level playing field, it’s just not the playing field we think it is.” To that thought the article makes this point:

This idea seems laughable, even. The best riders — Armstrong — had the best doctors. Only certain riders on the team got the certain baggies of drugs, while others were rationed lesser tonics. Dope didn’t level the playing field; it created an entirely different game that only a few guys had tickets to.

“When everyone can dope, it becomes a contest of who has the best information, who has the best access, who has the best doctor, and who has the most money. That’s what this contest is — it’s a chess game of information, connections and money,” co-Author  Daniel Coyle told VeloNews just after the [The Secret Race‘s] release.

Obviously, I have to realize, my old justification is a self-deception.  Money and power wins and you can pretty well buy your way to the top. Of course, it’s clear that Lance still had to work hard to get where he did–I wouldn’t win this summer’s Tour de France no matter how many PED’s you pumped into me–but I’m not his competition. Plenty of Lance’s competitors were just as dedicated but not as connected, just as passionate but not as corrupt. Someone like me has to look at such a competition and wonder if what I am seeing is even sport anymore. It feels a little like rooting for a drug cartel. In a scenario like pro cycling during Armstrong’s run, it’s more like The Godfather than Rudy.

Whether this is sport is a crucial question for me, but it doesn’t even get into the Livestrong Myth: how Armstrong has essentially marketed himself as the good guy through his Livestrong foundation and drawn who knows how many millions in endorsements through the years by being the good-cancer-fighter. The whole country’s been taken in by the ruse but our very gullibility is tied closely with our lack of concern for how false the character was.

As far as what Americans will think of Lance, unfortunately I think the reality of our thinking is best captured by The Onion:

According to sources and basic common sense, now that the storied career of cycling’s most prominent and marketable figure has been revealed as a complete and undeniable fraud, there is no chance the sport will ever again receive even one line of coverage from any news outlet in the world.

In all likelihood, most folks aren’t interested enough to find out how bad Armstrong’s actions really were. Since we liked the Livestrong Myth so much, one has to wonder if  anyone even cares whether Lance was dirty or not; after all,it is so inspirational . . .

As an example of this attitude I turn to Rick Reilly, a guy who is usually high on moral uprightness but for some reason has been all too willing to give Lance a pass because of his non-profit work:

I don’t care. I’m wearing yellow just to say thank you. If he cheated in a sport where cheating is as common as eating, then I’m wearing yellow to thank him for everything he’s done since he cheated.

 I’m wearing something yellow for the way he changed cancer in this country from dread to hope. I’m wearing something yellow for everybody who got their chilling cancer diagnosis and said to themselves, “Lance did it. Why can’t I?”

 Want to join me?

I can comprehend Reilly’s sentiment, a sentiment expressed before the public got a look at the gory details of the USADA report, a report far more damning than most folks seemed to think it would be; but to those willing to reexamine the reality of it, the bulk of Lance’s charity work looks more like self-indulgent self-promotion than kind-hearted philanthropy. This old Outside article (also written before the USADA’s report) leveled some pretty heavy criticism of him:

“The issue with Lance Armstrong isn’t whether he has done good for cancer victims,” accounting professor Mark Zimbelman wrote on his blog Fraudbytes, in a post comparing Mortenson to Armstrong, “but rather, whether he first cheated to beat his opponents, then used his fraudulent titles to help promote an organization that appears to do good but also enriches a fraudster.”

I love the clarity of this paragraph:

Much of the foundation’s work ends up buffing the image of one Lance Edward Armstrong, which seems fair—after all, Livestrong wouldn’t exist without him. But Livestrong spends massively on advertising, PR, and “branding,” all of which helps preserve Armstrong’s marketability at a time when he’s under fire. Meanwhile, Armstrong has used the goodwill of his foundation to cut business deals that have enriched him personally, an ethically questionable move.

“It’s a win-win,” says Daniel Borochoff, head of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog group. “He builds up the foundation, and they build up him.”

Yet does anyone care? I’m not sure they do. The Livestrong Myth is too good, too simple, to deny: “After coming within an inch of death, Lance fought all the way back to become the world’s greatest athlete. You can battle back too!” It’s my boyhood role-playing all over again, but this time with cancer victims: “Like Lance, if I could be like Lance!”  And while the USADA report and the dropped endorsements may mean the myth will not be peddled so openly anymore, my hunch is it will not be deservedly eradicated. Like The Onion pointed out, people don’t actually care about cycling, which means the onslaught of reporting that went into exposing and debunking the myth of Joe Paterno (see here for an example) will never be unleashed upon Armstrong . . . and most folks won’t know any more than Rick Reilly told them back in September. They’ll never know that the real story of Lance, both as cancer patient and pro cyclist, is that it’s amazing what kind of medical treatment you can get with big money and power.