The seven Tours de France that Lance Armstrong won – and now didn’t win – exist only in memory. Even before you try to sort what effect the devastating report released Wednesday by the United States Anti-Doping Agency will have on Mr. Armstrong’s future prospects as a cancer-fighter, you first have to expunge your own unreliable past.
All those real-time heroics on the endlessly upward mountain roads of France, as the TV commentators cheered Mr. Armstrong’s incredible determination? They never happened, at least not with the kind of courage, teamwork and pure athleticism that some innocent part of us still associates with our sports legends.
As the driving force in the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, Mr. Armstrong was at the centre of what has been called “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sports has ever seen.” That is now our baseline for judging Mr. Armstrong, which makes it much harder to repress all the noisy doubts his astonishing cycling career incited.
Over the past 15 years, since he overcame testicular cancer to become the greatest rider of our time, asterisk pending, Mr. Armstrong has raised half a billion dollars to improve the lives of people with cancer. Because he traded on his success as a cyclist in creating the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and put together cycling teams and business partnerships that would better serve his fund-raising goals, it’s impossible to separate the doping charges from the philanthropic mission.
Ben Johnson, charged with much less, has been written out of history. But Mr. Armstrong, with his Livestrong brand that is designed for fights against the odds, carries on like he’s the hero who has been wronged.
It’s a technique that served him well as he built up a do-gooding empire based on hope and faith and the power of belief. Cancer survivors and their families identify more with his personal experience of the disease, his charisma and his willingness to challenge cancer orthodoxy than they do with the niceties of performance enhancement in a sport that has been rife with drug cheats.
Cancer is depicted as a winnable fight and Mr. Armstrong is a fighter who refuses to give up, whether it’s on the leg-sapping Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France, or in the court of public opinion that will now determine whether he remains a philanthropic darling.
The case against him looks damning: His own teammates have testified against him en masse while detailing the doping imperatives of the U.S. Postal Service squad. Mr. Armstrong continues to deny that he ever doped. But, surprisingly for such a fighter, he decided not to contest the USADA’s charges.
Legal tribunals, with their narrow understanding of good and bad, don’t serve Mr. Armstrong’s long-term interests. He stands a better chance of remaining an inspiring hero as long as he stays out of those claustrophobic proceedings that make great men look as small as the rest of us.
So he will enter weekend triathlons to buff up his competitive brand, redirect attention toward his undeniable good works and sustain doubts about doping among his avid supporters with extra-legal name-calling against his enemies. It’s a tactic that has worked for him before and may still be useful until the dust clears from the USADA investigation.
All those witnesses, his former friends and allies? They’re serial liars, proved cheaters, losers with an ax to grind or a story to sell, haters who want to see him go down while they get off easy.
At some point, his less credulous supporters will start to do the math and wonder whether the balance of belief has finally shifted. And they’ll look for a connection between the dysfunctional, bullying organization that was the U.S. Postal team and the cancer-fighting cause that the quick-to-anger Mr. Armstrong now leads.
Supposing Mr. Armstrong did dope, could he now own up? Cycling fans, even those in the cancer-survivor community, long ago made a deal with themselves and suspended enough disbelief about the sport’s purity to enjoy the three-week competitions set against the eye-candy backdrop of Europe’s most beautiful landscapes. They would not be surprised if Mr. Armstrong turned out to have done what many other champions did before and after him.
The true believers in the cancer crowd will be harder to win over, since they’ve invested so much of their energy in Mr. Armstrong’s life story. But for them he is ultimately a philanthropist, and a philanthropist who does good can successfully elude his past. Money is the greatest performance-enhancer of all.