Five years ago if you had asked a lay American about Lance Armstrong, you might have heard ‘Livestrong’ before you heard ‘cyclist’. The greatest cyclist in history was more famous for something other than his sport.
Armstrong was a survivor, a fighter, an entrepreneur who spread awareness about cancer and raised money to fight the Big C, a dogged face behind the hopeful yellow wristband and an iconic brand that represented companies that made sneakers, beers and goggles. If earthlings had put together a team to battle the monsters from cancer-land, then Armstrong was our potential frontman.
Over the last few months, Armstrong’s reputation has plummeted at a rate faster than what he himself could have pedaled down an Alpine slope. He chose to not challenge the doping charges brought forth by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which went on to strip him off his seven Tour de France titles and banned him for life. Then the USADA released detailed eyewitness accounts where Armstrong came through as a liar and a bully who forced some of his teammates to cheat.
The news reports got muddier. Armstrong allegedly bribed competitors to allow him to win races, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report said. At least 15 more cyclists have been linked to Armstrong’s doctor Michele Ferrari in what seems like an elaborate scheme of money laundering, tax evasion and doping, according to an Associated Press report.
“The next thing you know, we’ll find out he never even really had cancer,” said Tom Carson, a columnist for Prospect Magazine in a piece where he compared Armstrong’s era of lying and arrogance to the presidential reign of George W Bush.
Armstrong stepped down from the Livestrong foundation as chairman. He had his contract terminated by Nike — the sneaker company and not the Greek goddess of victory, though the latter would have been apposite. Anheuser-Busch, Trek, Honey Stinger, 24 Hour Fitness, Radioshack, Giro and FRS also cut ties. Sports marketing agents have estimated a $30 million loss to his earning potential.
Now fans are forced to reconcile with what one leading sportswriter termed “the greatest fraud in the history of sports”. Some are angry they invested so much money and time on Armstrong. Others continue to live in denial. They say the episode is a witch-hunt and insist there is no watertight evidence of wrongdoing.
Armstrongers, as his diehard fans call themselves, say he never failed a dope test. They point to circumstantial evidence and remind everyone that his accusers — including his teammates — have not yet been cross-examined. One fan captured the mood when he said, “It’s not like he killed Santa Claus”. Another said: “The good outweighs the bad.”
These reactions are peculiar to Armstrong. Most other sportsmen would have seen their reputations buried by now but over the course of a 14-year career Armstrong transcended his sport and turned into a messiah.
He was no longer just a star who adorned your bedroom wall. He was not only a sportsman for whom you awoke at strange parts of the night to see him race. He was not someone whose autobiography you read only because you wished to understand the nuances of mountain biking.
Armstrong was superman. He symbolised hope. He was the poster boy for anyone battling the odds. You urged people to “do an Armstrong”. In a sport reeling under an onslaught of Performance-Enhancing Drugs, he seemed to be fighting for the human spirit. “Everybody wants to know what I am on,” he said in a Nike commercial in 2001. “What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass, six hours a day. What are you on?”
He fuelled a growth in cycling across the US. Cycling was healthy; cycling was cool. Some enthusiasts were willing to pay as much as $15,000 for a high-end road bike. Others dished out $400 for bike shorts. Armstrong took the sport closer to the mainstream.
Most sections of the media glowed in admiration. There were hardly any negative stories and many journalists kept their suspicions under wraps. “Cycling’s code of silence, and the vengeance taken out on people who broke the omerta, is well documented,” wrote Steve Madden, looking back at his time as the editor in chief of Bicycling magazine from 2002 to 2008.
“Armstrong employed a team of legal eagles who rebuffed even the slightest bit of disloyalty with lawsuits, counter claims and rumours...”
Once the industry and the media had bought into the Armstrong mania, the fans were sucked in by the updraft. They joined him in his journey and 84 million bright yellow wristbands were distributed. Not many worried about how Livestrong was helping cancer patients (and recent investigations have shown many of the organisation’s claims to be dubious). The fans simply swallowed Armstrong’s lines.
Now many of these fans cannot accept that he was possibly a drug cheat. That would reflect poorly on their misguided judgment. Their skyscraper of hope - built on the foundation laid by Armstrong - would be reduced to a heap of rubble.
Which brings us to a larger point: why are we — television, sponsors, journalists, fans — hellbent on turning accomplished sportsmen into larger than life figures? Why are words like ‘heroes’, ‘legends’ and ‘icons’ readily attached to them? Why are they held to a higher moral standard than actors and
We live in an age where every sportsman is put through a conveyer belt that starts with hyperbolic headlines and prime-time interviews before winding its way through ads, million-dollar contracts, controversy and scapegoating until it grinds to a halt at victimisation and crucifixion. Some are lucky to jump off the wagon before the last two steps. Others, like Armstrong, come out like a sugarcane would from a juicer. Either way, this is a formula that has been perfected by a media-PR-corporate machine that is unlikely to relent.
But fans must know better. It is time we reminded ourselves that sportsmen, while capable of heroic acts, are not heroes. Trailblazers like Jackie Robinson, Babe Didrikson and Billie Jean King — untarnished sportsmen and women who broke race and gender barriers — are an exception rather than a rule. Most other athletes as likely to be flawed individuals as we are. There is no reason to put them on a higher moral pedestal.
So repeat after me: Sportsmen are not heroes. They don’t stand in the line of enemy fire and protect our borders; they are not firemen who put their lives in jeopardy to save ours; they are not policemen who patrol our neighborhoods so that we can sleep safe.
They are exceptionally skilled performers who entertain. Not
hing more. Nothing less.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the US