Like many Americans, the wife (who my editor cleverly suggested I refer to from here on as The Wife of Kings) and I weren't particularly shy about our love for Lance Armstrong during the height of his career. I couldn't begin to explain what a "peloton" was before Armstrong came along, but by the time he won his fourth Tour de France title, we were pretty much hooked on the Armstrong mystique and legend.
Cancer is such a devastating disease, and because it plays no real favorites on whom it attacks, in some ways, the misery it causes is one of those threads that manages to weave together the lives of total strangers. My grandmother died of cancer when I was a junior in college. She never got to meet my wife, a fact of life that saddens me each year when we attend our family reunion. One of my former colleagues, who worked at The Sun for nearly 20 years, has cancer. It would be surprising to meet someone in this day and age whose life hasn't been touched in some way by the disease. Denver Nuggets coach George Karl and his son, a Lakers reserve, have both had to fight it recently.
Even if you were cynical enough to believe it was just a marketing campaign, you cannot deny that the yellow LIVEStrong bracelets the Lance Armstrong Foundation produced to help raise money for cancer research (more than 55 million were sold) represents one of the most successful public appeals by a charity in history.
For the most part, we TiVo right past commercials in my household, but cheesy as it is, the wife and I would always make it a point to ease off the fast forward button and watch this one. It's probably one of my favorite ads of all time. When Armstrong pumps his fist at the kids in the cancer ward, I'll confess it gets a little dusty in my house. My eyes start watering for some odd reason. I would pump my fist too, just to make my wife smile. As a journalist, it's part of my job to be skeptical. But as a member of the human race, I also couldn't help but be moved by what he came to represent.
Now 37 years old, Armstrong has unretired and returned to competitive life. He'd like to compete in the Tour de France again, though he told the British newspaper The Guardian (in this extremely candid interview) that he fears for his safety if he's allowed to race. (That decision is still up in the air; the Tour would like to see him go away.) It's just one of the examples of the way our perception of him has changed somewhat since he retired.
For my wife, it didn't sit well with her that he broke off his engagement to Sheryl Crow after numerous public declarations about how in love they were, and then was rumored to be dating one of the Olsen twins. (I care so little about this, I refuse to look up which one it was.) If nothing else, it was yet another cautionary relationship tale for famous people: Don't go on Oprah and gush about how much you love one another if there's a chance things might not work out a few months from now.
I didn't particularly care one way or another that Armstrong ditched Crow, but it did feel a little pathetic the way he seemed to be experiencing such a public mid-life crisis, running around with Mathew McConaughey shirtless for the paparazzi ("Hey ladies ... mind if I take my shirt off?") and dating one blond starlet after the next. More importantly, I started to question whether jingoism was really blinding me to see Armstrong the way Europeans saw him. Like many great athletes who are almost perversely driven, Armstrong has been rather cold and callous about the way he's cut people from his life, whether it's teammates, coaches, friends or even lovers. It's hard to find that so admirable.
European journalists find it laughable that Americans express outrage over someone like Barry Bonds, but write page after page of glowing prose about Armstrong. Although Armstrong has never failed a drug test administered by a governing body, at least at the time it was administered, the circumstantial evidence that surrounds his career is hard to completely ignore. It's fairly ridiculous the way some people brush off various claims about Armstrong with talk of conspiracy theories simply because they come from the French.
Armstrong isn't popular in France (he knows he'll be spit on if he does enter the Tour in '09) but the newspaper, L'Equipe, that wrote one of his urine samples from 1999 tested positive for EPO is not some tawdry rag. It's a very respected sports daily that is closer to ESPN than it is to the National Enquirer. At the Olympics in Beijing this year, right after Michael Phelps out-touched Milorad Cavic at the wall by .01 seconds (a result that looked to the naked eye like it could not have happened), I playfully teased a reporter from L'Equipe while we waited for Phelps to come speak (Cavic had already stormed past us without speaking) that it would probably be up to the French to uncover any grand IOC conspiracies. He just chuckled.
I posed the Armstrong question to a colleague yesterday, just to pick his brain on the subject, and he bounced back an interesting take: 20 years from now, won't our moral outrage over performance-enhancing drugs seem somewhat silly? The dirty secret about cycling is that practically everyone is on something. The most laughable aspect of the Tour de France in 2006, when American Floyd Landis was stripped of his title, was that the trophy was awarded to Óscar Pereiro. Two of Pereiro's urine samples from that same race later tested positive for the drug Salbutamol, which is used to treat asthma. France's anti-doping officials decided Pereiro provided sufficient justification claiming the drug had been prescribed for legitimate reasons, but you can see why it's absurd the way some allegations disappear while others are doggedly pursued, and why it all might feel like a complete farce to someone like Armstrong.
It might also be true that is doesn't matter how virtuous Lance Armstrong really is. He has been a force of good, legitimate or not. Even if all of this has been done for the Glory of Lance, something larger has been achieved along the way. I'm far from the ugly American, hoping to see the Texas cowboy stick it to the smug French once more. But I'll pump my fist when I catch a glimpse of the 2009 Tour on television, fully embracing the idea, if not the man.
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