When the most recent cycle of witch-hunting began, I dug into drawers until I found my old bright yellow LIVESTRONG rubber bracelet, one of some 84 million sold for $1 to finance Lance Armstrong’s cancer foundation. I slipped it on. I felt snarly and mean again. We’re going to be okay. We are going to, as Lance instructed us, “take responsibility for ourselves and be brave.”
In July 1999, after Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France for the first time, I had run out and bought my first good bike. I chanted LanceArmstrong, LanceArmstrong to help me push up hills. I felt a kinship. We shared the same kind of cancer (fittingly, his case was much worse). A few years later, when mine recurred, I chanted LanceArmstrong, LanceArmstrong to push me through chemotherapy.
Lance had asked me to moderate a panel at Stanford on athletes and cancer with him and several other athletes. It was lively and candid. On our way out of the arena, a woman stopped Armstrong and asked him to address a topic that hadn’t come up--how had his faith, his belief in God, helped him as a cancer patient?
In his direct, borderline chilly way, Lance said, ''Everyone should believe in something. I believed in surgery, chemotherapy, and my doctors.''
The questioner looked disappointed, but I felt a surge of relief. Armstrong had stood his ground. He and I had agreed earlier in the day that the intrusion of faith-based treatment can be pernicious, almost like blaming the victim, and Lance had pointed out that ''Good, strong people get cancer and they do all the right things to beat it, and they still die.''
As we left, Lance grinned. ''I guess I won't be able to go into politics when I stop bike racing.''
I guess he was right about that.
I’m not worried about Lance. In the private time we spent together in Palo Alto (that was the fee I charged to come out and moderate the panel), he was engaged, warily friendly, twitchy with energy. When I brought up his rumored drug use, he was quick to express anger (more of an intimidation technique, I thought, than an emotion). This was a hard case, still the emotionally abused kid who smothered his psychic pain with real pain on a bike.
Two years ago, in my memoir, I interviewed myself about Lance. I asked, How would you feel if all the rumors about his use of performance enhancing drugs turned out to be true?
I answered, I’m willing to live with it. Let’s assume that Lance’s doctors have been so skillful that he never tested positive. Can we move on?
I still feel that way.
Last week, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which had stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France championships and banned him for life from professional cycling, released more than 1,000 pages of testimony from 26 people, including 15 cyclists, about Armstrong’s persistent and highly organized use of blood transfusions and banned drugs.
(A far better, and equally persuasive, read is The Secret Race, by a former team-mate, Tyler Hamilton, and Daniel Coyle.)
In response, Armstrong tweeted his lack of concern and his lawyers floated the possibility of him taking a lie detector test. It’s easy to believe that Lance could beat the test--his icy control is legend. It’s also possible that Lance, beyond delusion or denial, doesn’t really consider himself a cheat. After all, there was a level playing field on the Pyrenees--wasn’t everybody juicing?
And that, of course, may be the point that takes us beyond pro bike racing – a sport that even I, like most Americans, can raise little passion for – and beyond Lance Armstrong, who has done more good than harm in his life but should be penalized for breaking the rules for which he signed up.
There is something faintly sinister about the Anti-Dope Party, whether it’s campaigning through cycling, the Olympics, baseball, or football (where it seems to have pretty much decided to fail). Wasting funds, energy, and the attention of citizens, the anti-dopers generally stay a half-life behind the dopers, who are driven to keep giving us the bigger, faster, more spectacularly vicious thrills we demand. By now, even fantasy leaguers understand that performance-enhancing techniques don’t promise success beyond the chance to heal faster from harder and more frequent workouts.
As one who shoots steroids (a result of three cancer operations, a la Lance), I still can’t crush a fastball, much less ride up mountains at speed. (Typically, Lance sniffed at my fifteen-mile cycling routine as barely worth getting on a bike for.) But I do understand what doping can do, and done carefully it can be useful. In American sports, it has been generally available at least since the early Sixties. The promised reefer madness trail of death and twisted lives has never materialized, and certainly not on a scale of the damage caused by the conventionally encouraged violence of football.
Don’t cry for Lance Armstrong. That bully can take care of himself. Watch out for the righteous, wrong-headed anti-dopers, distracting us from the more immediate and perilous concerns of orchestrated violence. And follow instructions: Pedal hard. Take responsibility for yourself and be brave.
Robert Lipsyte, a former sports and city columnist for The New York Times, is author of the recent memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter.