I had originally intended to write a Random Thoughts post today. But since that would be at least the fourth one of the week and the second one of the day, my guess is you probably already random thought-ed out. (That’s what I get for taking the last slot of the week.)
Instead, I want to offer some brief thoughts and pose a couple questions to you surrounding the biggest new story of the day. After more than a decade of defending himself from blood doping allegations, Lance Armstrong has decided to withdraw from the fight. For a guy who routinely beat the Alps and a field of the world’s best cyclists all eager to take him down, it seems like a strange move.
His whole reputation is built around a “never give up” spirit. He’s revered for his athletic prowess, but he’s famous because of the adversity he has overcome. As a cancer survivor in a grueling sport, he’s an unlikely champion. That he was the greatest champion his sport had ever known made him a living legend.
Which makes his announcement yesterday that he’s rolling over and giving up all the more surprising.
Personally, I enjoyed the Armstrong story. I don’t normally watch cycling competitions, but over the years I would occasionally tune in to see the last few stages as he separated from the pack and sealed another Tour de France victory.
And while surviving cancer and his unparallelled success made him easy to root for, you have to also factor in his unique place in American sports. Most casual sports fans, or even Armstrong followers can’t name his biggest racing rivals. In a sport of unknowns, he became a household name.
I don’t remember ever owning or wearing a Livestrong bracelet, but that would put me in the minority. Armstrong didn’t represent a team, and he wasn’t subject to the kind of rivalry partisanship most other marquee athletes face. He represented all of America, and in turn, seemingly all of America rooted him on. He was a living, breathing Wheaties box–a symbol of personal triumph and an object of national pride. He dated singers and actresses, appeared in movies, and was the name and face of several high-profile marketing campaigns. He became the face of cancer charities everywhere, and he embodied the nationwide hope for a cure. In simple terms, he was as beloved an American athlete as we’ve seen in over a decade–maybe since Michael Jordan.
I can’t help but wonder how that will change in the days and weeks to come. Will there be a backlash, and what will it entail? Certainly he’ll always have his hardcore defenders. But his announcement last night had to be a heart-breaking shock to much of his considerable fan base.
Of course cynics will view the end of his self-defense as an admission of guilt. In fact, the USADA has already made that leap and begun the process of stripping him of his awards.
But if you’re a guy whose got the Lance Armstrong bicycle in your garage, the Lance Armstrong spandex suit and helmet, the Lance Armstrong stationary bike, and a permanent tan-line from your Livestrong bracelet, what is today like for you?
It’s one thing to see a relative nobody like Bartolo Colon, or even standoffish superstars and confirmed villains like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens get nailed for using PEDs. It’s another thing to see a beloved hero’s image tarnished–or even worse, to watch him stop fighting to protect it.
One other thing to consider: we’ve lowered the bar for how we expect athletes–especially superstar athletes–to behave. We can talk ourselves into forgiving pretty outrageous behavior as long as they keep performing on the field. Armstrong doesn’t have that luxury. In fact, his personal reputation wasn’t stellar even before his announcement last night. But whether he cheated or not, he’ll have to live with this disgrace for the rest of his life. He won’t be getting back on his bike and riding to further glory. He must know that he’s permanently crippled his popularity, right? Is that a position you’d put yourself in if you weren’t guilty in the first place?