On Lance Armstrong, doping, and the loss of a hero

All the years that Lance Armstrong rode to victory, I saw him as a hero both as a rare clean cyclist, and for his work against cancer. Two days ago, that image became a facade.

“I can’t believe the news today. Oh, I can’t close my eyes , and make it go away. How long…How long must we sing this song. How long, how long…” from Sunday Bloody Sunday (U2, written by Bono and The Edge)

WASHINGTON, October 24, 2012 — This isn’t an apology. This isn’t a renouncement. Almost eight weeks ago, in these very pages, I defended Lance Armstrong against what then appeared as a witch-hunt by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

Even with the International Cycling Union confirming the USADA findings, a little bit of that feeling remains.

But that’s not a subject to discuss now. What I wish to address now is today’s monumental news – the UCI stripping Armstrong of his historic seven consecutive Tour de France titles – and the reaction from someone who has grown up hearing about Lance Armstrong the hero.

I’m not going to begin all melodramatically nor am I going to declare that I’m quitting cycling as a hobby out of rage and disappointment. But today, the final nail went into the coffin, burying results that formerly defined the greatest cyclist ever, burying with those titles and medals the pride for a homegrown American sports hero.

I was barely two when Armstrong won the first of his now-vacated Tour titles, in 1999. I was barely eight, when he won the last of those, in 2005, just twelve and truly following professional cycling when he made his comeback attempt in 2009. And I saw the yellow jersey as a representation of everything that I’d ever been told and ever read about Armstrong, from his talent on the course to his cancer fight and tireless charity work on the side.

To see that all come tumbling down, to see the evidence pile up, to hear Pat McQuaid, UCI president, declare that “Lance Armstrong…deserves to be forgotten in cycling,” it’s all a punch in the gut, shock in my chest. I was proud to see Lance Armstrong represent the United States as that rare hero inside and outside his sport. Now, everything is a mix of conflicting emotion. Can I still laud his efforts at Livestrong? Is it too soon to condemn him to the negative territory of sports history without truly hearing his side?

But then, I guess we’ve all heard his side. He never failed a drug test. Case closed. That rings so hollow now that the echoes keep flying and flying. And I feel betrayed. Watching Armstrong wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France made me consider the goodness of the human race. While all sports, cycling especially, struggled with stamping out performance-enhancing drugs, I watched him and saw a rare infallibility of human nature. That’s all gone. It started to fall apart when he dropped his defense. It crumbled today into a pile of pebbles and dust.

I’m trying to avoid denial right now. I know that I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and see Lance Armstrong the hero, as he was when I watched him compete, youthfully oblivious to the drama and controversy that surrounded him even then, at the end of his career. Maybe he was still the best, the best by virtue of being the winning doper in a field of dopers. I don’t care. I’ll continue to support Livestrong; I’ll continue to remember how Armstrong raised cancer awareness.

But when it comes to sport itself, I lost a hero today. So here goes, thank you, Lance Armstrong, for founding Livestrong, raising cancer awareness, and for ensuring that I’ll never put another sports celebrity on an ivory pedestal again.


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Arjuna Subramanian

Arjuna Subramanian is an aspiring baseball writer living in the Washington D.C. area.  He started his writing  with his blog Painting The Black on MLBlogs in May of 2009.  He fell in love with the sabermetric movement during the 2008-2009 offseason, and strives to provide balanced articles from both sides of the statistics/scouting divide.  

When not writing, watching/listening to baseball, over-analyzing his Chicago Cubs, staring in disbelief at the writing of Thomas Boswell, or keeping tabs on the latest Milton Bradley blowup, he can usually be found at the DC Fencers Club, where he is a competitive epee fencer.

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