Even his staunchest supporters may think twice about Lance Armstrong’s storied cycling career, now that he’s decided not to contest the charges brought against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
But if his seven Tour de France titles are in jeopardy, based on testimony from teammates that he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career, his achievements as a cancer-fighter remain untouchable: Half a billion dollars raised through the Lance Armstrong Foundation in 15 years since the cyclist’s amazing recovery from testicular cancer.
So while other athletes of equal greatness but lesser sanctity have experienced disgrace and derision when they fail to meet the sports world’s shifting moral codes, Mr. Armstrong’s legacy may be more secure. Fairly or unfairly, his reputation ultimately depends on the unshakeable goodwill bestowed by the millions of supporters he’s inspired to ride bikes, raise funds and wear his yellow Livestrong bracelet.
“I’m a bit shocked that he gave up his fight,” said Jeff Rushton, who worked with Mr. Armstrong’s foundation and organizes bike tours to support children’s cancer charities. “The Lance I know never gives up. But whether he did or didn’t drug, it doesn’t change my perspective: They can take away his Tours de France, but they can’t take away what he’s done for cancer.”
It’s a difficult thing for the beleaguered guardians of drug-free purity to accept, but cycling is a small-scale distraction compared to the life-and-death universality of the cause Mr. Armstrong now champions. Even if Mr. Armstrong is trading on a celebrity that rests on shaky foundations, the aura of goodness he’s acquired can’t be taken away by administrative decree.
“I think Lance will transcend the issue of being accused,” said Jay Coakley, professor emeritus of sociology at University of Colorado. “He’s become defined as a source of hope for millions of people. He’s provided consolation and compassion, and for most people, those things trump whatever the United States Anti-Doping Agency is saying.”
Would it be different if Mr. Armstrong admitted guilt and acted contrite? Certainly his decision not to face the charges has left the issue unresolved and allowed sponsors such as Nike to stand by him with a less-troubled corporate conscience.
But even his faithful followers see room for a more nuanced approach. Philanthropists often occupy two separate realms, where the goodness of the cause needn’t be tainted by the source of the money – Mr. Armstrong is unusual only in the sense that society continues to attach childlike feelings of innocence to athletic heroes well beyond what commercial sport can bear.
Mr. Armstrong remains officially elusive, but Gian Medves is well beyond the innocent stage: “I don’t doubt that he cheated,” he said. That hasn’t stopped him from wearing the Livestrong bracelet and participating in the Ride to Conquer Cancer. “He rode with a passion that goes beyond doping. … In a way, what he’s done almost surpasses the doping – makes up for it, you know? He’s been so inspirational in spearheading this fight.”
Lance as fighter: It’s the one consistency in his combative Tour de France riding, his conflicts with anti-drug authorities and his public battle against disease. As an attribute of character, it has proved double-edged in his cycling career, where his capacity to alienate simply eggs on his enemies. But in the cancer wars, it could be his greatest legacy: No one tells Lance what to do.
“He shook up the cancer fundraising community because he didn’t play by the rules,” said Beth Kapusta, a writer and consultant who took up cycling after reading Mr. Armstrong’s autobiography while recovering from a second bout of cancer. “Before Lance, a cancer patient was supposed to lie in the corner and somehow get better. He turned the paradigm on its head and showed that you could take your own well-being into your own hands. He single-handedly did more to destigmatize cancer than any human being, with the possible exception of Terry Fox.”
Ms. Kapusta doesn’t separate the two Lances in her consideration of his legacy. She watched his extraordinary mountain ascents in the Tour de France with clear-eyed understanding of the part drugs can play in professional excellence.
“Yes, his brand is based on his integrity in the cycling world, and that’s a problem” she said. “But this is a larger-than-life figure who loves pushing the boundaries. He was an epic character in the epic battle of cycling, so how do you judge him in our mortal realm?”
With files from Matthew Braga