Everybody knows Lance’s story. He was a young cyclist whose career was halted by cancer. Testicular cancer had spread to his brain and lungs, but after months of intense chemotherapy, he was declared cancer-free. He came back to win seven consecutive Tour de France victories, an unfathomable achievement for a former cancer patient. He inspired many people, not just cancer patients.
On 22 October, the American hero was stripped of all career results and was banned from cycling competitions for life. The US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) found “overwhelming” evidence that Armstrong was involved as a professional cyclist in “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program.” Armstrong’s sponsors have withdrawn support and insurance companies are suing him for millions of dollars in bonuses. Owners of the yellow Livestrong bracelets are scribbling out the “v” to make the bracelet read Liestrong. Ouch.
But should we be so harsh to the shamed man? The liar who insisted he was drug free at a time when doping was rampant in professional cycling? The villain once idolized by countless young cyclists? The cheat who bribed his way to fame?
My answer is no. He may be a failure as an athlete, but not as a human being.
Pretend Armstrong was never famous for his success in cycling. Before he stepped down as chairman, he played an instrumental part in Livestrong Foundation, a non-profit cancer support organization that has raised several millions of dollars for the cause. His motivations should be respected. He recognized a need and dedicated himself to charitable causes. Sure, a man who beat cancer and went on to win seven Tour titles is an appealing icon, but a man who beat cancer and went on to race in the Tour would have been quite impressive too. The titles are icing on the cake. The lack thereof should not mitigate our respect for him.
Cheating is cheating in any sport, but it is more ubiquitous in cycling. It has been said that if the 2005 yellow jersey had to be reassigned to the next fastest finisher who was not linked to doping, it would be awarded to the 23rd place finisher. Even that rider may have been involved in enhancement drugs, but was never caught. In a sport where everyone is in equally pristine physical shape, eats the same high-carb diet and rides similar ten thousand dollar bikes, it still takes someone special to stand out from the crowd. Surely, many riders—if not most—illegally doped to gain an edge, but it still takes an exceptional athlete to conquer the Tour’s podium for seven consecutive years.
Sometimes, it’s worth recognizing a person’s achievements, however obscured by setbacks.