Lance Armstrong. You can love him. You can hate him. You can adore him. You can despise him. Armstrong mattered when he won the World Cycling Championship in 1993. He mattered when he won a stage at the Tour de France in 1995, just days after his Motorola teammate, Fabio Casartelli, was killed when he crashed on a mountain-top descent. He mattered on October 2, 1996, when he was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer. He mattered in July 1999 when he won his first Tour de France. He mattered in July 2005 when he won his 7th Tour de France. He mattered in January 2013 when he finally admitted that he deceived the world for nearly 15-years, and that he did, in-fact, use performance-enhancing drugs during all 7 of his Tour de France victories. He matters today...
Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with advanced metastatic testicular cancer on October 2, 1996 - a condition so advanced that it had invaded his abdomen, his lungs, and his brain. His doctors gave him a 20 - 50% chance of surviving - an optimistic estimate just to keep his hope alive. Miraculously, after a number of surgeries and numerous rounds of chemotherapy, Armstrong was declared cancer free and began his return to cycling in 1997. There was nothing fake about Armstrong's cancer - it was as bad as he said it was; he was as desolate as they said he was.
Armstrong was involved in cancer therapy trials at Indiana University, where he received the majority of his treatment - most of those trials were related to variants of chemotherapy that wouldn't scar his lungs so that if he did survive, he could have a chance of cycling again. But...he did not have access to many of the treatments that high-wealth individuals like Steve Jobs had. And you want to know why? He didn't have healthcare at the time. Most people don't know that the only way he got his cancer treatment was because one of his sponsors, Oakley Sunglasses, stepped in and covered the costs. It's the very reason that Armstrong remained so loyal to Oakley and its founder (Jim Jannard) throughout his career - Oakley would later cut all ties with Armstrong as detailed a bit below.
He was a very different cyclist post-cancer - he lost 20 lbs. and the once-muscular triathlete-turned-cyclist was a very lean shadow of his former self. He did not perform well upon his return to pro cycling and was virtually ready to quit, until his friends convinced him to give it "one more go". Armstrong ended up changing his cycling style by increasing his cadence and using a lower gear - the once powerful cyclist was now using a much smaller gear, but was peddling at over 100 RPMs. The change in style allowed him to rely more on his aerobic endurance than on his muscular power - it made him a threat both in the time-trials and the mountain climbs. Hence, his increased aerobic dependence made EPO and blood transfusions the perfect method of cheating as both provided increased oxygen to the blood.
7X the Miracle:
And so the man once regarded as a threat to win single stages shocked the world by winning the Prologue (opening time trial) at the 1999 Tour de France, beating Alex Zulle by 8-seconds on the line - a large margin of defeat for such a short distance. Armstrong went on to win the 1999 Tour de France by over 7-minutes - to give you a sense of how big of a margin that is, most Tours are won by a minute or two. The great Greg LeMond won the second of his two Tour de France victories by just 8 seconds. And the rest as they say is...history. After the 1999 Tour, Armstrong went on to win the next 6 Tour de France's, eclipsing the record of five held by a number of cyclists. The closest victory he ever had was in 2003, when he won by a mere 62 seconds, a decent margin by most standards, but a razor-thin margin for Armstrong.
The Comeback and Fallout:
In 2009, Armstrong returned to the Tour de France believing that he could win the Tour "clean" - he eventually finished a very reputable 3rd place - a remarkable feat for a guy who had been out of pro competition for 4 years and was nearly 40 years old. He made one last run in 2010, which turned into a disaster due to a number of factors including a fall. And so many, including me, thought the Armstrong story was basically played out - cancer survivor turned 7x Tour de France winner turned philanthropist turned washed-up cyclist finally ready to settle into retirement. Armstrong had one problem - a guy named Floyd Landis. Landis was a former teammate who won the 2006 Tour de France only to be stripped of that title for testing positive for a banned substance and suspended from the sport for two-years. Upon his return, he sought out a position on Armstrong's Team Radio Shack, only to be told to effectively "take a hike". Landis turned out to be the grenade that exploded in Armstrong's face. Landis went on to tell his story to the press about the years of doping practices that took place on Armstrong's USPS team. But, then he went to the Federal Government, which opened an inquiry into the matter as Armstrong's main sponsor for the team was the USPS - a division of the Federal Government. Several inquiries and numerous depositions later, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) turned over its findings to the UCI, which found enough credence in the report to strip Armstrong of all 7 Tour de France victories. What transpired within a matter of weeks was an avalanche that completely buried Armstrong - all of his major sponsors left him (Nike, Oakley, Trek, Giro, FRS, etc.) - an event that Armstrong calls a "$75 million day" and then then the biggest hit came, Armstrong was effectively forced to resign from the Livestrong Foundation - the charitable organization that he started to provide support and research in the fight against cancer.
A Complicated Legacy:
Whether you like it or not, Lance Armstrong raised $500 million for the Livestrong Foundation and provided hope to thousands of people who faced cancer - you can say it was a facade for his lying and cheating, but I know a lot of liars and cheaters who haven't raised a dime for anything good. And Armstrong was more involved in that organization and the cause itself than most would like to believe. He visited people; he sent text messages to people battling the disease; he recorded video messages; he showed up at events; he showed up at hospitals - he was an active member of the cancer community. Who am I to say whether it was genuine or not? But I do know this - he was there and he sent one of the most powerful messages that has ever come from a professional athlete or other public figure who has survived an illness as pervasive as cancer is: "Not only can you overcome the odds and beat the disease; you can actually be better than you were before." In a 2008 Livestrong blog post, Armstrong wrote to one of the many people battling cancer that he built a relationship with - a kid named Jimmy Fowkes. He wrote:
"Lastly, My thoughts and prayers go out to Jimmy Fowkes who is one of most amazing young men I have ever met. He is a survivor who is awaiting test results on a possible recurrence. He is an inspiring individual who has not only raised large sums of money for the LAF but who has taught so many people what it means to LIVESTRONG. Best wishes to his little sister Molly, and his parents Margo and Dan whom I have come to know well. They are truly part of the family and as I told Dan over the weekend, the entire LIVESTRONG Army stands ready to help."
Fowkes endured 4 recurrences of brain cancer and went on to raise $230,000 for the Livestrong Foundation. He went on to attend Stanford University. He remains the only four-time winner of the National Collegiate Cancer Foundation scholarship. Fowkes passed away from cancer in February-2014 and Armstrong sent out the following tweet:
To this day, he still sends private videos and notes (like the below) to people afflicted by cancer - there is no longer any media coverage. There isn't hoards of people lauding him anymore for being some hero. So I have no idea why he does it. But does it really matter? The act of it counts for something - it has to:
"Hi, Melody. I’m Lance Armstrong. I just wanted to send you a short video message to let you know that I’m thinking about you and I’m pulling for you. I understand you’ve had some up-and-down news when it comes to your health. Just hang in there and know there are brighter days ahead. If there’s anything I can ever do to help you, please let me know. In the meantime, keep kicking cancer’s ass. Best of luck."
So while it may sound like I'm a fan of this guy who ignores the fact that not only did he cheat and lie, he made life hell for anybody who posed a doubt (via lawsuits, taunting, etc.), I'm not. I'm fully aware of the brutal nature at which he treated anybody who doubted the credibility of his miraculous recovery. I think it's disgusting. In some ways, I think his actions in response to the allegations of wrongdoing were worse than the wrongdoings themselves.
Armstrong lives a quiet life now that he says is "thinning out". He is still facing a number of lawsuits that threaten any semblance of wealth that remains. He has five kids now, a gorgeous girlfriend / partner (who is also mother to one of his children), and frequently does interviews where he discusses the very things he's despised for. He says he's sorry, but nobody really knows if he's sorry for cheating -or- if he's sorry for getting caught for cheating.
I don't know what the future holds for Lance Armstrong, but for the vast majority of people that hope we never hear from him again, I'm not one of them. I think he still holds a lot of 'potential' to do good for two fights:
- The fight against cancer, and,
- The fight against that fine line that exists between 'winning' and leaving your character behind in the process.
I'm not actually sure which is more significant or relevant in today's world. They're both afflictions that the new generation is constantly faced with - one of the afflictions (cancer) invades the body. The other affliction (the pressure to win even if you have to lie, cheat, and steal) invades the mind. Both awful; both pervasive.
And that's why Lance Armstrong still matters - he's been afflicted with both, and [I believe] he has much left to teach us about those fights - one of the fights [cancer] can teach us about the power of hope and courage; the other [lying, cheating and stealing] can teach us about the power of deceit.