Where is the Anti-Lance Rage?
The Kansas City Star
With Lance Armstrong stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, the greatest champion in the history of a sport has fallen from grace. You would expect fans and media to explode with scorn and outrage. Or at least to explode with that ginned-up public scorn and faux-outrage we reserve for celebrities who fail.
But the yawn has been collective. Especially at ESPN, where the reaction to Armstrong’s fall has been breathtakingly apathetic. That’s odd. When baseball’s drug problem was at its worst, the Lords of Bristol were contemptuous prophets of doom, preaching that the poisoning of our National Pastime meant the death of the American Dream. On Armstrong, the Worldwide Leader has been positively blasé. On “The Sports Reporters,” for instance, Howard Bryant sounded positively bored by the whole affair.
What gives? This isn’t some no-name relief pitcher or Russian wrestler, after all. The guy is a global icon. Lance isn’t merely accused of doping, either. Or of “only” forcing his US Postal Service and Discovery Channel teammates to join him. If you believe the USADA report – which you should – Armstrong absolutely trashed the sport he claims to love. He ran every facet of a broad conspiracy to acquire, distribute, administer, and cover-up the use of illegal performance-enhancers.
There’s just no overestimating how dirty the sport became with Lance in it.
You know Pat McQuaid, the UIC official who said Armstrong “deserves to be forgotten”? He reportedly didn’t sound so high-handed when asked about cash payments the UCI received from Armstrong over five years in the early part of the decade. In 2001, for instance, shortly after Armstrong was found to have a suspicious sample at the Tour of Switzerland, he paid McQuaid’s group about $100,000. That payment by the way – and this is just adorable – was officially designated for the UIC’s purchase of new blood-testing machines to help anti-doping officials catch cheats.
Wow. Just.. Wow…The irony would be fabulous were it not in the service of such stark, dire evil.
All this, yet most fans seemed more upset about, say, Ryan Braun? Seriously, what the French?
First, Lance is great-looking. He has therefore been protected somewhat by the bubble of privilege that surrounds all attractive people, in or out of sports. That’s just life. Secondly, he has a name that sounds like a superhero’s, and he wore red, white and blue while dominating a European sport.
Certainly some kind of scandal fatigue also plays a role in the tepid response to Armstrong’s purported crimes. In wake of Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Shawne Merriman, of McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, Bonds, and pretty much every other big baseball name of the last 20 years, fans must have grown less shockable.
Which leads to another reason why Lance isn’t provoking all that much righteous anger. Some people just don’t give a flying fig. Especially when bikes are involved. That would be the oft-heard bargument “Everyone Cheats in Cycling,” most often followed closely by the “It’s impossible to catch all the cheaters, anyway.” rationale. Slate.com’s sports podcast, “Hang Up and Listen” recently indulged in some of these “Yeah, but…” rationalizations, couched in a tone of moderate, occasionally bemused disapproval.
But this perspective is moral surrender. The fact that so many tour riders cheat, poisoning themselves and their sport, doesn’t make it any less wrong.
More importantly, although it may be impossible to catch every doper, things can change for the better if the public demands it. Baseball may have had to get the Federal government involved, but the game is indisputablly cleaner. Even the once-filthy Olympics finally got serious about testing. Nearly half of the 14,000 athletes competing in London were given blood and urine tests by the IOC – including every athlete that won a medal. Out of more than 6,000 tests, nine came back positive –in addition to the 117 caught by anti-doping agencies in the run-up to London. With fans of the sport seemingly indifferent, and UCI president McQuaid not showing the least interest in leaving office, cycling seems unlikely follow that lead.
Armstrong’s comeuppance has also been a long time coming, ameliorating any shock. As early as 2001, he was forced to implicitly address the doping allegations by making the famed “What am I on?” Nike commercial. For anyone with even a moderately cynical bent, the USADA report only confirmed what they long suspected – that anyone who doesn’t think Lance is guilty is just deluding themselves.
Therein lays the real reason that Lance got a pass on so much for so long: self-delusion. That’s the real reason for the very restrained response to his dizzying fall, and for why so many refused to believe he was guilty despite a decade of mounting proof. Self-delusion is also why there are those who will always think he’s innocent, no matter what anyone says.
Lance Armstrong is a cancer survivor, and has done countless good works personally and through the LiveStrong foundation he created. That alone imparts a moral authority which makes him hard to criticize. But in overcoming that horrific disease to win one of the world’s most grueling sporting events, Armstrong did something more than merely good. He did something transcendent. His wins on tour spoke to the power of indomitable will, to the unconquerable nature of the human spirit. For millions, Armstrong became the living, physical embodiment of victory in a personal war against cancer. For some, no matter what he’s accused of doing, that delusional dream about him is what counts most. For them, in a battle that matters more than any bike race, the shining lie of who Armstrong pretended to be will always be more important than the truth of who he was. The shame is that a whole sport had to suffer for it.