Livestrong*

I believed in Santa Claus until I was eleven.

Looking back, I don’t fully understand how I continued to believe in the face of logical and reasonable arguments against his existence.  When friends blatantly told me the ‘big-guy’ wasn’t real, I tuned them out. I didn’t care.  I held on to the hope that the amazing story was true.

I believed because I wanted to believe.

Growing up, I had two favourite athletes: Brett Favre and Lance Armstrong.  When Favre left the Green Bay Packers, I supported him and justified his actions.  When the infamous cell-phone pictures came out, I refused to believe they were real.  I was one of the last people to accept that Brett wasn’t just a gun-slinger with a teenage love for football. Like any other man, he had his vices.

For Lance Armstrong, it was supposed to be different.  Lance was the shining light in a sport full of cheaters. He was proof that perseverance and dedication could lead to greatness.

Living strong was a mindset we could all embrace.

There were a million reasons I believed Lance Armstrong was clean.  Despite being the most regulated athlete on the planet, he never tested positive.  At age 38, he came back to finish 3rd in the Tour de France. Clean.  His body’s capacity to transport and utilize oxygen was the best in cycling history. As a result, it was possible for him to dominate a field full of dopers.

For millions of Armstrong supporters, the USADA ruling hit hard.  Usually, when an athlete tests positive for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), they are forever labeled a cheat.

For Lance, it’s different.

His cancer-related work is more important than his athletic career.  His ability to inspire those fighting the terrible disease is worth more than seven Tour de France victories.

But can we separate the two?  Does it matter that his ability to fight cancer was supported by a fraudulent superstar status?

As a lifelong fan, I need to know. How should we remember Lance?

The Cheat

If you don’t know what “the look” is, I’ve posted the link below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdMdJAdzpYQ

In his first book, It’s Not About the Bike, Lance outlined a pivotal moment during the 1999 Tour de France (the first of his seven victories).  Halfway up the final mountain climb of a critical stage, Armstrong led a select group of riders.  He was exhausted, could barely feel his legs and felt like giving up.  But when he looked back at the field, he noticed a defeated look on the face of an adversary.

In one stare, Armstrong made it clear the race was his. Seconds later, he left his challengers in the dust.  This marquee moment personified his never-say-die attitude. It showcased his ability to fight when he felt like he had nothing left.

Now, it looks like the moment his drugs kicked in.

To be clear, his adversaries that afternoon have also been involved in doping scandals.  Doping has been part of international cycling for decades.  Cycling is not unique in that sense. Much like Major League Baseball and Track and Field, PEDs are entrenched in the sport.  That being said, no sport experienced such widespread drug use the way cycling did.

When Lance won his titles, the percentage of riders doping was estimated to be greater than 75%.

Cycling experts agree that blood doping only helps in a marginal sense. It might shave 5-10 minutes off a doper’s total time in the Tour de France (a race that takes over 90 hours to complete).

With Armstrong now stripped of his titles, Daniele Nardello is technically the 2000 Tour de France winner.  Nardello placed 10th and finished over 18 minutes behind Armstrong. However, he is the highest-placed rider that has not been involved in a doping scandal.

Are we supposed to believe Nardello was clean?  Perhaps. But then again, Lance never tested positive.

In an era where blood doping was as common as energy bars, it’s reasonable to doubt Nardello enough to question the purpose of awarding him the victory.  The ICU has decided against naming a winner for the Tour titles stripped from Armstrong.

Bottom line, Lance was the best.  In a field full of dopers, he was top dog.  Should his career be celebrated? No.  But it should be appreciated.  He was a special rider, arguably the greatest of all time, whose cheating makes him no different than every top cyclist in that era.

 The Inspiration

To every cancer patient inspired by Lance, he is one thing: a hero.

In his book, Armstrong talks about the unique bond between cancer patients that outsiders can’t appreciate.  Lance may have escaped with his life, but he never forgot that community.  In the last decade, he has done more for that group than any human on the planet.

Lance’s Livestrong foundation has raised over $500 million for the fight against cancer.  He spends an hour each day responding to emails from cancer-stricken strangers who reach out for help.  His words of encouragement are a beacon of hope to thousands fighting the disease around the world.

Lance also belongs to another unique community.  This one is more exclusive. In fact, it is one of the most exclusive groups in the world.  It includes the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice and Michael Jordan. It’s a group labelled as the ‘greatest of all time’.

In the sport of cycling, Armstrong deserves that title. But more importantly, Armstrong used his greatness for a better purpose.  He used his celebrity status to wage war against cancer.  He could’ve disappeared off the face of the earth, lived off his millions, gone for bike rides and played with his kids. That would have been his right.

Instead, he devotes the majority of his waking hours leading the peloton chasing down cancer.

What now?

Despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, do we actually need a confession from the man himself?

Certainly, it would close the loop on years of accusations, investigations and arrogant denials.  Some would sympathize, others would criticize, but everyone would be interested in hearing his side of the story.   I know I would.

Lance has meant a lot to me.  His book inspired me to take advantage of every day. But it wasn’t just me.

Lance brought cycling to North America.  Americans were captivated by his dominance in a race that historically only mattered to Europeans.  Wall Street bankers turned their putters in for helmets.

His story has been a source of motivation for millions who simply refuse to quit.  After all, if Lance could defeat cancer and become an icon, why couldn’t they get a promotion at work? Or get into college? Or get back in shape?

It is impossible to know how many lives Armstrong impacted.

Today, his longtime sponsors have abandoned him. The International Cycling Union has expelled him. But there is one group that will always have Lance’s back: the cancer community.  To them, whether he doped or not is irrelevant. They rally around the hero who has given their fight a face.

Perhaps Lance should write another book exposing the truth.  Give us his side of the story.  The proceeds from the inevitable best-seller could go to the Livestrong foundation.

It would be a fitting end to the Armstrong story.

The man who never quit, giving us an explanation while continuing to help those who never needed one.

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