There comes a point in every man’s life…for pure dramatic effect, Lance Armstrong couldn’t have chosen a better set of words to start his statement with. The line had ‘instant immortalization’ written all over it, and right on cue, analysts and writers all over the world ran away with it. Ever since Armstrong announced his decision to back out from his legal battle against the doping allegations leveled on him, people have come out strongly in support of him, indignantly extolling his innocence and tom-tomming the evilness of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Armstrong stood for courage, for persistence, for perseverance – he was the Human Spirit himself, and his strongly-worded statement only added to his mystique.
After the smoke clears, though, it would be impossible to pinpoint the exact reaction that Armstrong inspires, even among his staunchest followers. I, for one, have been beset by a wave of conflicting emotions about the whole saga in the last few days. At first, all I could think was – “He’s a cheat!” Then I read his statement, and I started to feel that he has been victimized by the USADA. That’s the nature of human responses – we look at an event at face value, and immediately form a strong opinion about it, whether that takes into account all the extenuating factors surrounding the event or not. But now, after giving the matter some more thought, I’m beginning to think that my initial reaction, as knee-jerk as it may seem, was perhaps the most logical one after all.
Yes, we all know how inspirational Armstrong’s story has been. That he has helped thousands of cancer patients in their struggle against the deadly disease is undeniable. The term ‘struggle’ has always stood for a fair and honest fight, in most cases a losing one. Armstrong, by winning those seven Tour de France titles, showed the world that in the largely one-sided fight against cancer, it was possible to come up trumps too. His efforts, and achievements, looked fabulously incredible, perhaps even superhuman. So when he turns around today and says he has no intention of proving wrong the people who are hell-bent on discrediting his achievements, it’s difficult not to feel a little disillusioned with everything that Armstrong was supposed to stand for.
The evidence in Armstrong’s favor was irrefutable. The man had never failed a drug test his entire life, and the entire case that the USADA was building up rested on eye-witness accounts of a bunch of cyclists who had themselves tested positive for banned substances. On the face of it, the USADA actually seemed to be engaging in an ‘unconstitutional witch-hunt’, arm-twisting all the laws and officials to gets its way. But what is that way, exactly? What did the USADA have to gain by pursuing the case despite there being seemingly no evidence to back its claims? If we are to believe that the USADA had some personal agenda in sullying Armstrong’s name, that must have been one heck of an agenda.
Some have claimed that Armstrong has been fighting an uphill battle for 15 long years, and that it is natural for him to get frustrated by the arduousness of it all and throw in the towel. That would have been a lot easier to accept if it was Armstrong himself who had been physically fighting this battle all on his own. But Armstrong has the money, he has the lawyers, and he has his supporters. It wasn’t like he had to stand trial in court everyday. And how difficult is a little courtroom wrangling, anyway, after you have fought Nature herself on the demanding Tour de France terrain (and come out triumphant)? For a man who has been put on a pedestal for his never-say-die spirit, this is a surprisingly tame cave-in.
Even today, there is no hard evidence to corroborate Armstrong’s adoption of unfair means to win all those titles. By keeping up with the fight, and maybe eventually winning it, he could have preserved his image in the minds of the millions of people he purports to inspire. The man knew, as did the USADA, that backing out from the case would be viewed by a majority of the world as an admission of guilt. He knew that he’d be stripped of his Tour de France titles, even if he claimed the USADA didn’t have the authority to do so, and he knew that his playing career would forever be surrounded by a cloud of suspicion if he went ahead with his move. And yet, he went ahead with it anyway. What does that tell us?
I don’t know about you, but if I was innocent of a crime that I was accused of committing, I’d never rest until I had my name cleared. Specially if the alleged crime brought into question the integrity of the one act that defined my whole life and personality. I’d hold my ground, I’d stamp my feet, maybe even scream and holler at a few people. I’d try and work all the influential contacts (of which Armstrong has many) at my disposal to get a ruling in my favor. If I thought the system I was fighting against was inherently designed to ensure my defeat, I’d try and change the system. Forgive me for expecting Lance Armstrong, the superman among us mortals, to do the same.
Lance Armstrong stood for courage, for persistence, and for perseverance, but only when viewed against the backdrop of his stirring victories in the sporting arena. Without those Tour de France titles, it’s hard to comprehend how he is any different from the millions of other cancer survivors who looked the disease in the eye and lived to tell the tale.
As sacrilegious as this may sound, there might be a strong case to argue that, his charitable work for the Livestrong foundation aside, Armstrong has actually done more harm than good for cancer patients everywhere. Before the doping allegations came to light, Armstrong’s heroics were truly something to take inspiration from. But now, by putting a shroud of dishonesty around every one of his triumphs, Armstrong is actually sending out the message that it is humanly not possible to fight cancer without resorting to some kind of immoral short-cut. He is proclaiming the downright twisted idea that to truly overcome cancer, you have to lie, cheat and play dirty. Some inspiration, eh?
Fighting the good fight is tougher, but a lot more worthwhile, than taking the easy, dishonest way out. Sadly, the exact opposite of that idea is being projected by the actions of a man in a position to influence millions of people around the world.