Abe. Oprah. Barack. Michael. Nadia. LeBron. Ali.
There are 7.1 billion people on this planet and some of them really only need to go by one name. In sport, it is common enough with our collective penchant for hero worship, cult of personality and iconography. Even in the niche of triathlon, we have Chrissie, Macca, and Crowie. None of them will ever be as big, as global, as dominant and hopefully, never as tarnished, as Lance.
An entire chapter in the story of professional cycling will be known simply as the Armstrong Era. It will be known as a dirty, sullied and stained era. Everyone cheated and Lance Armstrong along with his enablers and teammates cheated more thoroughly, more professionally, more scientifically and more ruthlessly than the rest.
The Armstrong Era did not emerge so much as evolve from its antecedents. Doping has been with cycling for at least three generations. In the ’90s, The Pirate conquered every mountain, doped to the gills and eventually died of a cocaine overdose. In the 50s and 60s, amphetamines were not well understood beyond their effects on race day but they were pervasive.
In the 80s, the 7-11 teams introduced the Old World cycling community of Europe to the garish and unrefined Americans. They lacked tactics, history and even a basic sense of peloton decorum. But they learned. They apprenticed to the old wise ones while also charting their own course and introducing huge new markets to the sport which in turn increased advertising and sponsorship budgets. Efficiency, scientific training principles and a drive to not only win, but to dominate followed. The mid-90s through the 2000s, the professionalism, athleticism and overwhelming drive to dominate were the hallmarks of Armstrong’s teams.
Lance Armstrong was the right man for his time. And, we wanted what he had to give. Above all else, he was a winner. The personal triumph over testicular cancer humanized the champion. His return to professional cycling — to the highest levels of the sport — dramatized the level of discipline and physical achievement required to win a grand tour. His leadership of the US Postal team and the development of young lieutenants who — excepting Big George — would go off to lead their own teams established him as more than a athlete. He was the midwife of a global cycling renaissance. Later he founded the Livestrong Foundation and helped raise millions of dollars for cancer awareness and education.
All along the way, he won. He won the big races. He dabbled in mountain biking by winning at Leadville. Tried marathons. He famously won the Tour de France seven times in a row. He retired and made comebacks at ages that were simply not seen at the front of professional pelotons. Early this year, he made a splash in triathlon. In addition, he made individual gifts of time, money and heartfelt encouragement to countless cancer patients and their families. He consoled — often privately — grieving with people staring into the abyss. He was also a noted Lothario, something of a bully to younger riders who he believed disrespected him and a tireless defender of his own reputation — in the media, before various professional tribunals and doping agencies and with former teammates. Armstrong often notes that he passed more than 500 blood or urine tests at all times of the year during his era of dominance. He has run aggressive public affairs efforts to dismantle the credibility of former teammates and employees who publicly challenge his integrity as a clean rider.
I was excited to see him return to triathlon. When the WTC suspended him, I thought it was a stupid rule but the rule was in place and they were standing by it. Stupid because they suspend athletes under investigation instead of athletes who have been shown to cheat. But, good for them. Until the rule changes it applies to all of the athletes not all the athletes except for famous novices. I thought that he is a man of worldwide renown and would undoubtedly bring more attention and interest to the sport. But the facts matter. In this case, the facts show that the fine line between renown and notoriety is invisible for Lance.
He is a hypocrite and a liar. (And an admitted philanderer.) It hurts me as a fan and as an amateur. I’ve marveled at his accomplishments, gaped at his dexterity, and relied on the benefit of the doubt to keep the up the pretense, the possibility of the illusion of honesty. I also earn my middle of the pack results by staying within the rules. My adoring fans — okay, my family — want to be proud of what I do, how I spend my time and the men and women who I model behavior after.
The bubble has been burst, lanced. It hurt. But it was necessary to heal.
Coda — Earlier today, my friend Lynne from Knowledge Problem started a conversation on her Facebook page about Levi Leipheimer and all the news this week about professional cycling. Omega Pharma Quick-Step terminated his contract in light of his admissions of past doping. She made a brief and compelling case for optimism about what the Garmin team has done under the direction of Jonathan Vaughters. I replied with the following, and I’m looking forward to what she has to say about the whole situation. Lynne, you see, dear Internets, is an economist by training and will no doubt sort through the incentives, information costs and market value of a sport and an industry in crisis. In the meantime, my initial reaction to the whole mess can be found below.
Firing someone who steps from the darkness to the light is precisely the wrong strategy. It will backfire. People — fans, consumers, sponsors — will back someone taking a public penalty for clearly having done wrong but will turn on a team that goes for retribution. Vengeance is human, but rarely do societies (including micro-societies or communities like the tifosi) want to be associated with a position that advocates blackballing. Intuitively, people know that to ostracize says something about oneself as well as the other person. In this case, to ostracize Levi and his cohort who have broken with the past says that we as fans (sponsors etc.) refuse to claim our own responsibility for the dark pharma-driven era of the sport. Everyone loves the story of redemption. The wrong signal is being sent to the peloton and junior ranks — but, I predict Levi will come through, land on two wheels and the result in the medium and long term is that redemption will win out over punishment.
The only addition that I would make is that I sure hope the rapid growth in participation and the economies driven by triathlon don’t take it down the same painful path of late 20th century cycling.