Lance Armstrong is the cancer survivor who doctors gave a 40 per cent chance of living, who fought his way back to win seven Tours de France and raise millions of dollars for the fight against cancer, bringing hope and comfort to many.
Or, as papers presented this week by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) suggest, Lance Armstrong is the drug cheat whose team “ran the most sophisticated doping programme ever” and whose cycling success and consequent charity work are based on a lie.
The USADA presented 1,000 pages of evidence against Armstrong including the testimonies of his previous teammates. Each spoke of being forced into making a decision to dope or not to dope, to join the ‘A team’ or to see their careers falter. One can empathise without agreeing with their decisions, but there seem to be three main themes common to their testimonies and those of cyclists who have admitted to doping:
- Confession is good. Living a lie is tiring, owning up to that lie brings relief and lifts a metaphorical weight from the shoulders. Cycling’s most articulate man and ex-doper turned clean cycling campaigner David Millar, spoke of the relief he felt when the French police found evidence of doping in his flat. He felt the lie he had been living was coming to an end and this would help him move on and enable him to live life again.
- The need for forgiveness. One of the riders Christian Vande Velde said in a statement: “I’m very sorry for the mistakes I made in my past and I know that forgiveness is a lot to ask for. I know that I have to earn it and I will try, every day, to deserve it.” There is recognition that by cheating they let people down who believed in them – family, friends and fans – and that to live a true existence again they need forgiveness to straighten that out.
- The desire to make things better for others. Jonathan Vaughters and David Millar – who both doped at points during their careers, have set up a cycling team dedicated to riding drug-free. They want to channel the hurt and pain they endured through the choices they made to ensure that future generations don’t have to make the same decisions.
Which brings us back to Lance.
We shouldn’t wish for flawless heroes as I suspect we wouldn’t want to be judged on a similar level. At the same time we should welcome those who acknowledge their flaws, who own up to them and try to live with redemptive purpose in their lives. Which begs the question – will Lance ever admit to his past or will he fight to maintain the pretence?
I want my heroes to be honest. If Armstrong confesses, asks for forgiveness and seeks to make things better for others in the sport, I suspect my view of him would change. It is the pretence that I find so difficult.
There is talk of introducing a Truth and Reconciliation court into cycling; to wipe the slate clean, to move on from cycling’s muddied past. The irony is that getting everything out in the open would be the best way to rescue Armstrong’s reputation. If we knew everything that happened in that era, and Armstrong was open and honest about what he did, I suspect that more people might be willing to admit, grudgingly at first, that Lance Armstrong could still be viewed as a legend.