Yesterday, my website set a record number of visits with people reading “Saying it’s So.” Admittedly, I also spent the day reading the many articles, comments, quotes, arguments, and editorials about Lance. And considering the number tweets, Facebook posts, and article comments, it is clear that we are all trying to come to terms with the implications of Armstrong’s decision. Even those of us who have a position on the issue continue to find it interesting. After all of that, however, I find myself wondering: Why are we so captivated by the Lance Armstrong story?
It doesn’t feel like the usual voyeuristic gawking that goes on when some celebrity has a meltdown. If so, Lance could have simply flashed his crotch while heading out to a night club and we would have been done with it.
It also doesn’t feel like collective Schadenfreude that we sometimes see when some unspeakable public enemy gets his deserved comeuppance. Did anyone take to the message boards to defend Bernie Madoff after his ponzi scheme?
It is clear that the collective interest in the Armstrong story is both captivating and causing many people to undertake some serious reflection (which is good for philosophers). The story is not only dominating the cycling world and the regular sports news but also the major media outlets including the New York Times, the BBC, and Al Jahzeera. I mean if Armstrong taking drugs is being broadcast to regions that just went through the Arab Spring, there is something captivating here.
So what is it? The closest explanation I can see is that of tragedy. Like with all tragedy, people want to understand the events, but they also want to understand the “why” and what lessons we should learn. Tragedy also fits in the Armstrong case. None but the most cold-hearted ever wanted Lance to turn out to be a doper. We wanted his great story: A cancer survivor come back from the dead to dominate the toughest cycling race in the world with the usual American mix of grit, bravado, and stunning superiority.
Now that that narrative is ruined, we are left making sense of ourselves in a world where Lance no longer evokes the image of an athletic great. Like people after a major earthquake, we are trying to find our metaphorical footing now that the ground under us feels unstable. We want answers that will hopefully put our minds at rest.
Many people, including my friend and cycling buddy Scott Herzig, have wished that Armstrong would have just come clean. In that sense, if Armstrong is guilty, the truth would certainly have been better than his take-my-ball-and-go-home approach. At the same time, on the (very small) chance that he really is innocent, what more can he do? Considering how devastating it would be after all of this prosecution to find out that Armstrong really won his seven Tours clean, I hope for USADA’s sake that they are right.
I also agree that knowing the whole truth would go a long way towards helping us all come to terms with doping in sport. I really like the idea of a cycling-styled “Truth and Reconciliation” commission. Best exemplified by South Africa following the period of Apartheid, former Minister of Justice Mr. Dullah Omar explained that “… a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.” Such a process would help by allowing the blame to be acknowledged, regret to be expressed, and through granting of amnesty, we could get a clearer picture of just what exactly went on. As South Africa taught us, only by fully understanding the past can we begin to move forward.
Last, many people have defended Lance because of the good he has done through Livestrong and the number of people he brought into the sport of cycling. We do not need this defense. Please consider that for every person inspired to take up cycling because of Lance, there was a local club “hard-man” there to pave the way.
In my case, it was Scott Herzig and Geoff Procter (although we all had people like these). These guys were legends; they could crush pedals and fly up climbs. They were also there to pace me back when I was dropped and to mentor me through my first races. They are examples of how you don’t need to be a Tour champion to grow the sport of cycling. Procter continues to introduce many talented American juniors to European cyclocross through his Eurocross Camp. He has also maintained an unimpeachable and consistent anti-doping stance with all of his athletes and he has personally helped many talented cyclists further their love of the sport. In my case, he donated cycling clothing to me when I was just getting started, which as any cyclist knows is something you cherish. Herzig has played an important role in growing the Helena high school Mountain Biking scene. This program continues to introduce high school kids to the sport of mountain biking. He also taught me in the fine arts of cycling etiquette and technique like riding in Montana crosswinds. Both of these individuals, however, welcomed a cycling newbie with no talent but tons of enthusiasm into their fold.
Now it is easy to give praise to unsung heroes, which both of these people are, but what
they are doing is much more than that. Scholars have consistently shown that the “hero” or “halo” effect does not sustain a sport’s growth (weren’t golf courses supposed to be overrun with thousands of little Tiger Woods by now?). What does grow a sport are grassroots programs, strong mentors, and youth who are introduced to a sport’s subculture and internal goods. Procter and Herzig are doing just that. Their efforts are growing the sport of cycling more than Lance’s celebrity ever could. I am sure that, whatever sport we played, we had people like this. They are anonymous to people outside of their community (Aaron Rudick and Phil Sanders) but they changed our lives and we are forever indebted. They encouraged us, taught us the game, mentored us in life, and made us lifelong lovers of sport. Lance might have been a global icon, but we need to remember who it was that really grew the sport and improved their communities.
Perhaps by really trying to come to terms with the past and focusing on the really good stuff going on in the present, we can begin pointing sport towards a lasting and durable future.