May 29 2011
Let’s imagine for a second that 10/2 never happens. Armstrong—the twitchy, track-suited, wannabe frat boy captured in the video below—never gets cancer. The sniffle he has here is just a cold. He goes on to have a good career, wins some classics, buys some cars, and retires, either after catching a dope positive, or getting away scot-free—it’s up to you.
Had that been the case, you wouldn’t be reading this. The bike racing and riding public in America would be a mere shadow of its current self, and millions of cancer sufferers would still view their disease as a crippling, unrecoverable plague. If, through some luck, you did still follow cycling, you’d probably consider yourself an Armstrong fan; he’d be a lone, underachieving American hero in your obscure, European sport.
Objectively speaking, there’s no way to say that the end result of the cancer, the stepped-up “preparation”, the work with Ferrari, the personality cult, and the Livestrong brand were bad things—for the sport or for the world. So why, then, is there such a groundswell in the cycling community to see Armstrong fall? Why do the haters hate?
I don’t claim to have the same motivations as everyone, but the fact is I don’t really care that Armstrong cheated. I don’t have a problem with him being a complex character, at once guilty and an inspiration. On occasion, I even think he did a pretty good job racing the bike.
But what I find a constant source of consternation and embarrassment, is that despite all the Tour wins, and millions of dollars for cancer, and other accomplishments, under it all, Armstrong still comports himself as the gel-haired bro-caricature captured in this video.
The legal battles, the past-prime comeback, nobodies on Twitter, the heckler battling, the Chair You’re Sitting In, the increasingly transparent denials, trying to “win” assembling a legal team the way he tries to “win” collecting art—for a man who should have nothing to prove, Armstrong’s inability to gracefully accept even the tiniest of slights and compulsion to continually pad his legacy is pathetic.
Had Armstrong been a lesser rider, it could be overlooked—we all have flaws. But he isn’t a lesser rider. He is the public face of cycling, and has a far larger pull than the sport itself ever will. By all accounts, Armstrong dominated almost a decade of unsustainable rule-breaking, and as the pre-eminent rider of that era, the onus is on him to simply admit what the rest of the world already knows.
The sad part is that because Lance has so fortified himself in the myth of his performance, the consequences of a confession now will likely be harsh. His legacy will be tarnished. Cancer research may suffer. He might even go to jail. And that’s not entirely fair. But celebrity is a double-edged sword, and for the hundreds of millions he’s raised on his reputation, he owes the world the courtesy of owning up to his transgressions.
So until that moment comes, I’m viewing the Fall of Fortress Armstrong with a certain satisfaction. Not with any particular malice toward the man, or for the heady glee of watching a tyrant hang, but as an audience member at an Elizabethan play. Armstrong is our tragic hero, and his fatal flaw is the monomaniacal focus that had until now served him so well. Unable to account for it, he’ll continue stacking denial upon denial, until the whole house of cards tumbles in a familiar, inescapable denoument.