Lowering the Lance

Armstrong’s lies should not overshadow the undeniable good done by his foundation.

By Raghav Rao

By the time this article finds its way into your hands Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah will have been aired and analyzed by all major news channels. The AP reported that he’s already apologized to the staff of his Livestrong Foundation. News of the confession has been brewing for the past week, and I can’t help but feel that the Armstrong-Oprah publicity teams are hard at work trying to spin this in a manner that bolsters their respective images. In recent times Oprah’s been relegated to the periphery of the news. She’s certainly using this opportunity to reclaim some of the spotlight. Armstrong’s P.R. people are very happy to let her do just that.

The sharks have been circling for a while now. Many of these sharks have a right to a good-sized bite. Some journalists took a lot of flak for going after Lance in the days where he was the media’s darling. London’s The Sunday Times has launched legal proceedings against Armstrong. His legal team previously took them to court for libel, and now they want to get even. Associates like Floyd Landis—a former teammate—who blew the whistle on Lance years ago only to be accused of lying, must be licking their chops. Cycling fans, though I imagine they’re rather jaded by now, have the right to be upset. They’ve been cheated out of the enjoyment of their sport. Non-dopers on the cycling tour are perhaps the most justified in their anger.

But why is there so much anger from the general public caught up in this media whirlwind? Piers Morgan’s tweet on the subject, which received over a thousand retweets, read “BREAKING: @lancearmstrong finally admits to the world: ‘I’m a cheat.’ #LiveWrong @Oprah”. Clearly people care and are upset. The Livestrong Foundation that Armstrong started to provide support for people affected by cancer is being turned into a symbol of Armstrong’s hypocrisy. This is despite the fact that Armstrong really is a cancer survivor. People are unsettled by the idea that a known liar and cheat is the figurehead of a charitable foundation. It’s true that Lance’s ill-gotten cycling fame fueled the foundation’s success. Since its inception, Livestrong has raised over $470 million. That money has helped people regardless of questions surrounding Lance’s personal integrity. Cyclist Lance cannot be separated from activist Lance since the personas have a symbiotic relationship. Lance was a hero not because he survived cancer—he was a hero because he survived it and won the Tour de France seven times!

I think this is why Lance is on the receiving end of so much vitriol. He allowed his “winner” cycling persona to merge with his cancer-survivor persona. All of a sudden he was everywhere. The corporations moved in and intensified his ubiquity by making him the poster boy of their brands. Nike, Oakley, and The Discovery Channel put Lance Armstrong onto the television screens of millions of people who aren’t fans of cycling. It isn’t that Armstrong cheated and lied within his sport that has people angry. It’s that he cheated and lied his way to what everyone wants: superstardom.

Tiger Woods allowed himself to become more than a golfer. Woods’s TV persona did not just say that he was a good golfer. It also said that he was a human being worth emulating. That’s why he had to apologize publicly for being adulterous even though that should’ve been a private matter. Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace will be worse than Tiger’s. Tiger’s “good guy” persona failed him, but his sporting achievements remained undisputed.

Lance, meanwhile, has lost not only his sporting credentials but in turn the aura that gave larger meaning to his cancer survivor persona. By taking his fame beyond the world of cycling Lance opened himself up to criticism from the rest of the world. He suffered from the hubris that is affecting all domains of today’s stardom.

However, in the case of star athletes this form of hubris seems inevitable. The sponsors own their images and thrust them into selling products. Since they are now marketing tools in addition to being sports stars they are in the public domain and have to be ready for criticism. And, frankly, Lance never did himself any favors with his tendency to blow his own trumpet.

Lance Armstrong cycled away from the rest of the professional circuit and got a little too close to the sun, and the fallout will, like Armstrong himself, transcend the cycling world. The publicity machine that allowed him to become a larger-than-life figure, that allowed him to raise all that money, is now prepared to leave him in tears on Oprah’s couch.

Yet, if half a billion dollars in support of cancer patients is not enough to redeem someone, then what is? Indeed, it is unfair to Lance to use the word “redeem,” as it wrongly implies that I equate riding a bicycle very fast with the help of performance enhancing drugs to raising money in support of cancer patients. Regardless of what the press tells us over the next couple of days, while #lancearmstrong will stop trending on twitter soon enough, the good his foundation has done will never be undone.

Raghav Rao is a fourth year in the College majoring in English.