In my father’s car, slung around the gearshift, is an old broken LiveStrong bracelet. I think he just left the bracelet in the car when it broke, but its presence is appropriate, as my father is an avid cyclist and a Tour de France connoisseur. He is also a huge Lance Armstrong fan. From Armstrong’s first Tour de France victory in 1999 all the way to his resurgent third-place finish 10 years later, my dad was the most fervent Armstrong supporter I encountered. Amongst all of his biking buddies, most of whom harbored suspicions about Armstrong’s alleged lack of doping habits at some point, my father was almost as fervent in his defense of Armstrong’s innocence as Armstrong was himself. Whenever accusations showed up in the news, my father walked the Armstrong/LiveStrong party line even this fall, when faced with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s overwhelming evidence of Armstrong’s guilt, my father remained unconvinced. My father has abandoned New York Yankees player Kevin Youkilis, Miami Heat basketball player Ray Allen and countless other Patriots, Celtics and Boston athletes, but never Armstrong. He was the one untarnished athlete in my father’s pantheon and, I’ll freely admit, in mine as well so I still have not spoken to my father about the bombshell that Armstrong dropped to Oprah Winfrey last week. He will need some time to process.
It is now an expected, if unfortunate, occurrence when a sport’s top dog falls from grace former Major League Baseball player Barry Bonds and other members of the sport’s so-called “Steroid Era,” barred from the Hall of Fame, are evidence of the public’s refusal to validate the products of tainted athletic careers. And who can forget the dramatic car- and life-crash of golf champion Tiger Woods? Sponsorships dropped left and right as Woods worked in isolation to rebuild his image as a decent human being. Woods’ indiscretions came as a shock to most, while Bonds’ steroid use seemed almost a foregone conclusion towards the end of his career. Nevertheless, each case is disappointing in its own way. As the media hype built around Armstrong’s announcement, I sorted out varieties of disappointment and shame disappointment in the fall of an almost-lifelong idol, shame that I could have been so naive for so long and, most of all, disappointment that Armstrong’s confession may not be entirely as noble as one might think.
Armstrong’s admission taints the entirety of his legacy, not just his cycling prowess. As in Bonds’ case, it should surprise no one that Armstrong was a doper he was, after all, one of the few cyclists of his era who had yet to admit to, or be proven guilty of, doping. What is far more disappointing is not that he doped but that this change of heart this high-profile admission of guilt, this public penance may have its roots in the same deeply personal motives that spurred Armstrong to so fervently deny his drug use for so long. After such a long struggle against the media, his fellow teammates and the general public, it seems odd that Armstrong would so suddenly abandon his position if he did not have something to gain. Indeed, an admission of guilt increases the likelihood that USADA will lighten their lifelong ban on Armstrong. Is Armstrong’s admission of guilt the only way he can find to get back in the game, to compete in triathlons, bike races and other sporting events? He has been heralded as, and has willingly accepted the mantle of, a true competitor one who will do anything to race, to play, to win and that fervor which spurred his quasi-legendary defeat of cancer (and probably led to clouded judgment) still persists. As a result, rather than presenting a changed man, one humbled and made less ignoble, Armstrong’s public profession of guilt seems only to show that he is driven by the very same concerns about his reputation and his ability to compete that drove his earlier denials.
Armstrong was a family hero, not just as an athlete but as a survivor. I cannot help but think that this latter legacy as survivor and inspirational figure is affected not by his use of steroids, but by the way he has handled the situation. My family proudly sported LiveStrong bracelets almost as soon as they came out. My father wore his until just a couple of years ago, when the stretch in the rubber finally gave way. Much like that bracelet, my quasi-infinite faith in Armstrong the person has snapped.