Last night, I found myself at a loss. Lance Armstrong, the most decorated cyclist in the sport’s history, and one of the most dominant athletes in the history of all sports, was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.
How Lance Armstrong’s athletic legacy would be looked upon seemed irrelevant to me. There was a much bigger, far more important question on the table.
How would millions of cancer patients who drew hope from Lance Armstrong be affected?
Everyone knows his story. At the age of 25, Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. That was in 1996, before he won his first Tour de France. He dropped out of cycling until 1998, and then won his first Tour in 1999. It was a sight that became quite familiar, as Armstrong would capture seven consecutive Tour de France titles. Lance Armstrong was handed a diagnosis of cancer, but persevered. He became a symbol of hope for all cancer patients, went on to raise millions of dollars for cancer research, and become the face of overcoming the disease.
Through it all, Lance Armstrong was pure.
There were doping allegations along the way – during his original 1999 Tour victory, and during his next seven years of cycling dominance. But through it all, no positive tests. All the way, Armstrong was never widely considered a cheater. His LIVESTRONG foundation became well known, his charitable efforts well documented, and his public image highly regarded.
Then, slowly, his name began to get dragged through the mud.
The decision made by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) yesterday was not a rash one. Armstrong had been in a two-year legal battle with the anti-doping agency, all the while receiving more negative and negative PR. It was obvious the longer Armstrong’s name was linked to doping allegations, the more profound the effect would be on his perception and image.
But he continued to state his innocence.
Through countless allegations, legal battles, books, and those claiming otherwise, Lance Armstrong has never once admitted to doping. He still hasn’t. But yesterday, Armstrong did something that no one had seen him do. Not when he was diagnosed with cancer. Not when he was accused of cheating. Not ever.
He gave up.
In a statement released on his personal website, Armstrong wrote, “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now.” Armstrong’s decision to stop his legal battle with USADA could be seen as an admission of guilt. It could be seen as a man who is innocent but tired of trying to clear his name, or a man sick of paying the millions of dollars in legal fees to continue to pursue this case. But this story is much bigger than Lance Armstrong. It’s bigger than his seven Tour de France titles, his Sports Illustrated male athlete of the year award, or any of his other accolades.
Lance Armstrong undoubtedly loses in this story. His name and legacy will never be looked upon in the same light. His lifetime ban from USADA will mean he can no longer compete in triathlons, coach cycling, or be involved in any USADA-sanctioned sport. But all of that seems insignificant when you think of just how much more important Lance Armstrong was than cycling. When you wonder what this will do to possible future donations to LIVESTRONG. And if you grew up battling cancer at the peak of Lance Armstrong’s cycling career, how will this affect your psyche?
I’m not saying Lance Armstrong is guilty or innocent—I don’t think that’s for us to decide. What is up for debate, though, is how this latest instance will affect those to whom Lance Armstrong mattered most. Every once in a while we come across a story in sports that is so much bigger than the players involved – when there is a greater, far-reaching affect something can have on more than just athletes or results. Lance Armstrong was much bigger than the Tour de France, cycling, or any award he ever won. Now, the question is: will he remain that big?