SPORT / Dave Zirin : What They Can’t Take from Lance Armstrong

Survivor: Lance Armstrong. Photo by Christopher Ena / AP.

He quit the fight but not the war:
What they can’t take from Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong, and his ubiquitous Livestrong bracelets, are 21st century totems of survival and the USADA isn’t going to change that.

By Dave Zirin / The Rag Blog / August 29, 2012

If Joe Paterno represents the greatest fall from grace in the history of sports, then many are saying that Lance Armstrong might now have won the silver.

On Thursday, Armstrong was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France cycling crowns and will be banned for life from any connection to the sport he made famous. Why? Because he withdrew his appeal against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s contention that he time and again rode steroids and performance enhancing drugs to victory.

Armstrong quit the fight against the USADA but issued a statement without contrition, accusing them of an “unconstitutional witch hunt.”

As Armstrong said in a statement,

There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, “Enough is enough.” For me, that time is now… I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999. The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today — finished with this nonsense. Today I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances… I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities.

With the swiftness of a pro cyclist going 75 miles per hour down a steep hill, the USADA acted immediately, treating Armstrong’s surrender as a legal admission of guilt. Travis Tygart, the USADA’s chief executive, spoke as if a jury of Armstrong’s peers had voted to convict, saying, “It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and athletes. It’s a heartbreaking example of win at all costs overtaking the fair and safe option. There’s no success in cheating to win.”

Tygart maintained that Armstrong didn’t give up the fight from exhaustion but because he knew that the USADA had 10 former teammates ready to testify that he was doping. Armstrong, it should be noted, made clear that no matter what any witnesses had to say, “There is zero physical evidence to support [their] outlandish and heinous claims,” Armstrong said. “The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of [drug tests] I have passed with flying colors.”

I don’t know about Armstrong’s guilt or innocence, but anyone who writes off Armstrong after the USADA ruling and thinks that he’s about to enter some sort of Paterno-Pete Rose-Barry Bond pantheon of infamy, doesn’t quite understand his appeal or why he connects so strongly with his army of fans. Of the 70 top-10 finishers in Armstrong’s seven Tour De France victories, 41 have tested positive for PEDS, Armstrong is a hell of a lot more than just number 42.

The Texas native came to public consciousness not just for beating the Pyrenees but for beating stage four cancer. In our increasingly toxic world, I don’t think a family exists that hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way. Lance Armstrong, and his ubiquitous Livestrong bracelets, are 21st century totems of survival and the USADA isn’t going to change that. Nothing ever could.

No adult male saw Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa in 1998 and thought, “Someday I’m going to hit 70 home runs.” No adult female saw Marion Jones and thought, “Someday I’ll win gold at the Olympics.” But legions of adults have watched Lance Armstrong and thought, “Someday, I’m going to beat this damn cancer.”

That’s a deeper connection than fandom or even the virtual-world of fantasy sports could ever provide. If Lance Armstrong has been able to further the connection because he’s white, photogenic, and politically connected (and did I mention white?), then to his credit he’s leveraged those advantages to raise over $500 million for cancer research and access to treatment in poor and minority communities across the United States.

Armstrong, a religious agnostic, was once asked how his belief in God helped him beat cancer, He answered, according to the great sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, “Everyone should believe in something, and I believe in surgery, chemotherapy, and my doctors.” That response in the end is why he won’t go into hiding. He won’t live in self-imposed exile. He won’t slink to the margins of U.S. society and he won’t lose his fans.

Call him a doper. Call him a cheater. Call him the dirtiest player in a sport that’s as dirty as they come. He’ll call himself the guy who keeps fighting to make sure people have the surgery, chemo, and doctors they need. For people like those in my own family who have through trials of unimaginable courage, earned the right to wear that LiveStrong rubber bracelet, that will always matter more.

[Dave Zirin is the author of the book, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com. Read more articles by Dave Zirin on The Rag Blog.]

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1 Response to SPORT / Dave Zirin : What They Can’t Take from Lance Armstrong

  1. Discussion in Austin of re-naming the Lance Armstrong bikeway is particularly stupid — Austin wouldn’t HAVE a bikeway if it weren’t for Armstrong. I don’t care if the man was taking strontium-90, he won the Tour de France 7 times with one ball and turned hundreds of thousands of people worldwide into avid cyclists, not to mention raising awareness of and money for testicular and all forms of cancer.
    One of the sorrier byways that the all-consuming “war on drugs” has led us into…

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