Like many film fans worldwide, I recently spent 2 hours, (and way too much money on popcorn), in a cinema watching the time travel film ‘Looper’. Billed as one of those rare blockbuster action movies that also turns out to be a piece of classic cinema, it had seemed to live up to that promise. For two hours I was enticed, I was loving the ride, feeling uplifted, with my mind fixated on the spectacle. I don’t think I even glanced at my watch once. The only disappointment I felt during the film was when I reminded myself that Emily Blunt is already married each time she warmed the screen. That was until the end, and a plot hole that rendered everything that went before a fallacy. (Don’t worry, I won’t give it away for anyone who hasn’t seen it). Suddenly this great movie, a new favourite, an inspiration, something I could watch again and again was completely nullified. In a way I felt numb and kind of cheated. Feelings many experienced on a grander scale as a result of another story recently.
I am of course referring to the “non-fictional” story of Lance Armstrong’s cycling career. Like many people all across the world, I was a Lance Armstrong fan, or “Lance fan” as his compatriots would say. But unlike most of them, both “Lance fans” and Americans, I took pride in the fact that I knew who Armstrong was well before his first Tour de France “win” in 1999.
As a 10 year old cycling fan I remember him brashly bursting onto the scene and winning a stage in the 1993 Tour de France, before going on to become the sport’s youngest World Champion at the end of the same year. I remember the heartache of the death of Lance’s teammate Fabio Casartelli in the 1995 Tour, just over a year after I was left dumbstruck and feeling physically ill by Ayrton Senna’s fatality at the San Marino Grand Prix. I remember the raw emotion of Armstrong’s stage victory a few days after Casartelli’s crash, that tear-jerking salute to his fallen friend in the heavens as he crossed the line. I remember the rainy day in the 1996 Tour when Armstrong climbed of his bike and abandoned due to illness. I remember the exact moment a few months later when my dad came home from work, walked into our living room looking straight at me, and with himself taken aback, uttered the words “Lance Armstrong has cancer”. And I remember, after digesting this information as best as a 14 year boy could, asking my dad, “Do you think he’ll ever race again?” to which he softly responded “Son, I don’t even think he’ll be around for much longer”. Most likely it was just the naivety of youth, but at that moment I can honestly say I remember thinking, “But he can’t die.… he’s Lance Armstrong”.
Make no mistake Lance Armstrong was an inspiration to me, he was up there with the sporting greats, Eddy Merckx, Mohammed Ali, Pele, Usain Bolt, Michael Jordan and the afore mentioned Ayrton Senna. The whole story was the stuff of legends. His drive, determination, attention to detail, work rate, and defiance, both on the bike and in the cancer ward were legendary. As was the application of all of those attributes to his charity work too.
However, in recent years his story became harder to believe. Riders like Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso who’d finished second in Le Tour de France to Armstrong were caught blood doping. Ullrich retired but the difference in Basso’s performances post doping compared to when he was, was palpable. He was nothing compared to the rider he had seemed to be and Armstrong hadn’t just beaten Basso and Ullrich in Le Tour on numerous occasions, he’d annihilated them.
My suspicions obviously grew but at the same time so did LiveStrong (Armstrong’s cancer charity). Armstrong’s charity work was becoming as impressive as some of his cycling performances and he began talking about running for Governor of Texas. Despite doubting him I still defended him at times as if I still believed. This was wrong. The realms of my loyalty towards him had, in a way corrupted me. I was thinking like Lance, thinking, so what if it was a lie, if it gets him into politics and possibly the White House as a champion of free medical care would it really matter? All for the greater good etc.?
But that was not me, and not my ethos. I caught on and distanced myself from the whole Armstrong issue in recent years. I still supported the charity but no longer expressed a view on Lance. This mind-set, as I just alluded to, is probably how he thinks. Convincing himself it’s ok to continue the fallacy and lie as it’s for a greater good.
I knew for sure the doping rumours were true when he elected not to fight Usada’s (United States Anti-Doping Agency) recent charges. To me, the act of Mr “Never Quit” quitting spoke volumes.
This action contradicted his whole character and in my view was merely a vain attempt at a damage limitation exercise. I think he hoped by not fighting the charges, the evidence, which he knew was damming, would never come out and he could always claim it was just a witch-hunt.
And to that evidence. I don’t have any doubt that it’s all true or very close to the truth. What really angered me was the bullying, the threats and the sheer corruption of it all. Let’s not pull any punches here, Lance Armstrong’s actions were tantamount to gangsterism.
It wasn’t just that he doped, his team mates HAD to dope too to be on his team. Unbeknown to me, all of those attributes I mentioned previously that had made him an inspiration were also being used tacitly by him pertaining to doping. The attention to detail was incredible. Everything I’d believed in in my youth was a lie. That whole amazing story, the greatest comeback in sporting history, from death-bed to seven consecutive Tour de France victories, all a lie.
I don’t feel too numb or cheated, It’s a little sickening yeah, but I’d gotten over all of that a long time ago. And who am I? I feel for those who still believed, especially those who had or have cancer and looked to him for inspiration. I feel for those cyclists who were made to dope to continue and/or to advance their careers. I feel for cyclists like Filippo Simeoni who Armstrong turned everyone against after he dared to speak out. And Christophe Bassons who he basically bullied out of the sport for breaking the mafia like omertà amongst the professional peloton, by also speaking out against doping. And of course I strongly feel for everyone who got the slanderous Lance legal treatment. The defamation of character of the US Postal team’s masseuse Emma O’Reilly in a 2001 legal suit was particularly appalling. Armstrong labelled her a ‘prostitute’ in an attempt to decry her words when she merely stood up and spoke the truth. Former teammate Frankie Andreu’s wife Betsy received similar accusations for her eyewitness account of Armstrong’s hospital bed admission to Doctors that he’d used performance enhancing drugs, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996.
Lance Armstrong may have corrupted the system, forced others to cheat and bullied people out of the sport and their lively hoods, but he was never just the big evil shark in otherwise calm waters that some may believe. By far the biggest shark he was yes, but in a heavily shark infested sea. In his era doping was rife, most riders did it and almost all teams would force their riders to partake. A cyclist couldn’t be competitive otherwise. However, as was his way Armstrong took it to a new level, that was Lance, he took everything he did to a new level, a classic class A-Alpha male who always needed to be the best.
The sad thing is that if doping didn’t exist Armstrong probably still would have dominated the sport. Maybe not with 7 Tours de France to his name but he’d still be up there as an all-time cycling great.
Also, that once famous drive and determination of his has done wonders for his LiveStrong cancer charity and cancer care in the United States. A good which unfortunately may now be tainted. Say what you like about him on the bike but as a cancer survivor and advocate, it’s difficult to fault him. In that sense he seemingly was and still is in a sense, a champion. He has tirelessly devoted himself philanthropically to the cancer cause. Yes, we could argue the desire to attack this particular mountain may be ego driven in line with the Alpha male complex he possesses, but does that matter if he achieves his goal? A goal which could result in saving countless lives?
This takes me to a bigger question; all of that great work for charity, has spawned from the platform of a lie. Armstrong did what he did for cancer of the back of his sporting reputation and celebrity, statuses ascertained through deception, but then quintessentially used for a greater good. Does that make what went before ok or forgivable? He deceived millions and ruined a few lives in the process but arguably saved more lives in the end as a net result. Not to mention the health benefits for all of those who he inspired to take up cycling. And there were many. Surely the good far outweighs the bad?
In my book, aside from his charity work which can only be applauded, Armstrong’s actions cannot be condoned or forgotten. And he must be held accountable for them. If you can’t do something right from the start, don’t do it. It’s that simple. No one should ever owe anything to criminality. That may seem impossible in today’s society, but, despite what we perceive as our better senses may suggest, anything is possible if we all make the collective effort. As ‘someone’ once said “If children have the ability to ignore all odds and percentages, then maybe we can all learn from them. When you think about it, what other choice is there but to hope?”
Regarding were this whole saga now leaves Lance Armstrong, I would worry for his state of mind. He’s sitting on so much and has severely backed himself into a corner as a result. An admission of guilt from him seems unlikely. Even if he wanted to open up, in doing so he could enable past legal cases to be re-opened. Therein, opening himself up to perjury charges and severe financial loses. However, I hope he can come clean and admit he was wrong but, to me at least, it seems he may have convinced himself it was all ok and that in his eyes, the good outweighs the bad.
To go back to the start, one thing we may never know is that, if like the Alpha male main character in Looper, Armstrong could go back in time and face his younger self. What would he do? Would he attempt to change anything?
That thought aside, whether he ever comes clean or not there’s one fact that will never change. Even though it’s not what many first thought it was, the Lance Armstrong story has still been one hell of a ride, in many ways even more so now than the original story that he either led or tried to lead us to believe. But unlike Looper, one day it may still make an exceptional movie, right to the finish.