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Lance Armstrong: A Reasoned and Rational Personal Reflection

Note: As this commentary unfolds it will not be from a “…cast the first stone” perspective. I am far from an archetype of virtue. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve wished for Do-Overs, and, I would guess, so have you. This is not a judgment crusade.  After all — ultimately — who am I, who are we, to judge? I don’t know about you, but Final Judgment, when ALL is said and done, is way above my pay grade.

The Faces

Let’s just see where this takes me. Seriously, there is such a confluence of emotion that I need to simply put fingers to the keyboard and let it flow.

Disappointment, anger, concern, empathy, outrage, sympathy, confusion, and back again to disappointment. And, that’s just nicking the surface.

The accompanying photo is of a poster presented to me by The Lance Armstrong Foundation (now known as The LIVESTRONG Foundation), in 2001. Two years earlier, following a diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma, I had a modified radical mastectomy and my perspective on many things, all things, was forever changed. Since sharing the dais that afternoon in Austin with Lance and Lisa Bashore, I’ve delivered dozens of cancer survivorship talks throughout the nation including additional presentations at the request of LAF. I also participated in a Tour of Hope cycling event, a 50-mile ride into Washington, DC — led by Armstrong — to raise cancer awareness and funds for survivor support.  It was always my honor to contribute to this cause anytime, anywhere, anyway I could. Whenever LAF asked, whenever any cancer organization asked, the answer was/is always, without hesitation, yes.

Say it ain’t so…

For over ten years this poster has hung proudly and prominently in our home in Michigan, in the boardroom of the Health and Wellness Institute in Rhode Island, and, after retiring from HWI in 2010, once again in our home in Michigan. Following Lance’s chat with Oprah, my initial reaction was to remove the poster while dressing down the screened image of Armstrong with venom-sprayed expletives.  The lies, the arrogance, the vindictive trampling of good people whose only crime was telling the truth at the risk of clenched-jawed Armstrong wrath, sycophant lawyers serving papers, and mercurial public scorn.

Perhaps, most of all, the flood of emotion was because he pulled out an egotistical and hubris-coated needle and popped the balloon of trust. He also vaporized the poetic illusion that the fictitious Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy, born in Radioland, USA on July 31, 1933, a star athlete at Hudson High School, international super star, and universal role model was — in our world — Lance Armstrong, the Olympian, Cancer Survivor, and Tour de France Champion, born in Plano, Texas on September 18, 1971, a star athlete at Plano East Senior High School, international super star, and universal role model.

Yes! Yes! Yes! We want and need our heroes. Take a bow, Lance Armstrong, take a bow!

But, wait a minute, what’s that you say? This “mythic, perfect story” was “one big lie;” that you cheated during every one of your seven Tour de France victories; that you bullied, threatened, and intimidated those with the courage to speak the truth; that you simply didn’t believe that, in spite of all your admissions, you were cheating! Ah, say it ain’t so, Lance…please, say it ain’t so.

If it seems too good to be true…

No matter how much it served our personal yearning for real-world, honest-to-goodness caped crusaders, the Lance Armstrong story was simply too good to be true.  And, deep down, we knew it. As with the creeping credibility collapse of Three Cups of Tea author, Greg Mortenson (too good to be true), the heroic level of the cancer survivor turned seven-time Tour De France Conqueror defied reason. But favoring the comforting gauze of wished for miracles and Wheaties’ fanfare, the facts, logic, and preponderance of evidence were screened, pushed aside, and hushed by the desire, hope, and, yes, naiveté, of millions.  We were duped, but willingly so. Lance was not the only beneficiary of these self-serving actions.  Hubris cannot live without an adoring audience anxious to elevate those who defy the outer limitations decreed by the gods. Shame on you, Lance Armstrong, and, to a lesser, cautionary degree, shame on us, as well.  Together we created a parasitic symbiosis that only the bravest among us had the courage to acknowledge, separate, and expose for the toxic relationship it became.

Yes, Virginia, real heroes do exist…

Actually, maybe now is a good time to stop bestowing the rank of “Hero” on anyone who simply does the right thing; you know, the stuff our moms told us to do when we were little.  Precious few deserve the “Hero” badge, and even fewer can bear the burden and temptations that come with the label. That said, how about we just periodically stop spinning, recognize, and celebrate REALLY GOOD PEOPLE.

In a world of situational ethics (morality of convenience), it’s refreshing and reassuring to know that there are people — lots and lots of good folks — out there who are willing to take great risks, forego riches, and commit themselves to causes bigger than themselves. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO, Travis Tygart, under threat of personal harm, is one of the good guys. His mission is to protect clean athletes by exposing those, like Armstrong, who cheat.  Jeff Fager, Chairman, CBS News, also joins the club. He, admittedly, helped create the Armstrong myth, however, he and his producer, Michael Raduzky, also relentlessly stayed with the story and reported the myth as it began to unravel. As with Tygart, Raduzky reported on 60 Minutes that the Armstrong camp personally threatened him.  Another person who was threatened, disparaged, as well as economically harmed by Armstrong is Betsy Andreu, wife of Frankie, Lance Armstrong’s former cycling teammate. Her crime: She testified in a lawsuit that she and her husband heard Armstrong tell a doctor in the mid-1990s that he had used an array of performance enhancers. Frankie, she reports, was pushed off the Armstrong team, essentially ending his professional cycling career, for failing to fully step up to the recommended doping program.

Yes! Yes! Yes! We want and need REALLY GOOD PEOPLE. Take a bow Travis Tygart, take a bow Jeff Fager, take a bow Michael Raduzky, take a bow Betsy Andreu!  You’ve all earned it.

It’s Not About the Bike…

There is another good guy, really good guy, and dear friend for over ten years, that I would ask to step forward, be recognized, and take a bow. He is Doug Ulman, President and CEO of LIVESTRONG. But, asking Doug to take a bow would be a useless request. Doug would — nicely, politely, self-deprecatingly — smile, look away, shrug his shoulders, defer to the entire organization, and scoff at the suggestion.  I know he would. That’s who he is.

Since their inception in 1997, the LIVESTRONG Foundation has raised more than $470 million to support their mission to inspire and empower people affected by cancer. They have provided financial resources to more than 550 organizations that conduct cancer survivorship research or offer services to people affected by cancer, and 81 cents of every dollar raised has gone directly to support their programs and services for survivors. Remarkable. Please consider making a contribution.

So, as I look closely at the poster on the wall in our recreation room I am reminded of that day long ago in Austin, and I think about what this all means, today.  That day was a dynamic celebration of hope, determination, inspiration, and common cause. IT was about surviving and thriving with, during, and beyond your cancer diagnosis, or the diagnosis of a loved one. It was about collective caring, unity of spirit, and the power of the possible. It was about tears, laughter, hugs, and goodwill. It was about the visceral knowledge that life is lived in moments…not years.

Yes, Lance and his journey symbolized the theme and galvanized the crowd, but it wasn’t and isn’t about the bike.  On that score, he got it right, he told the truth.

The poster stays…

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hello Michael. Extremely well-written post. I find it interesting (in light of the “Oprah” confession) that Mr. Armstrong actively avoided any and all discussions associated with how he did it (and got away with it!) for so many years (doping). I know exactly where to go (or who to call!) when I want to blow my diet; I know exactly what I want to ingest…exactly what price I am willing to pay…when I am going to “do it”…if I will “do” it alone or with someone else…etc. etc. I ALSO find it interesting that a man who has been such a force for positive change (for cancer survivors) could at the same time defile his own body, lie like a champ, and ignore the potential consequences of his repeatedly bad choices. Oh wait. Harry Stack Sullivan had a name for this type of behavior: sublimation. I feel empathy for the man, but he’s no dummy. I hope he gets the help he needs in more ways than the obvious. I’m just sayin….

    January 31, 2013
  2. And yet….

    In the midst of your own turmoil coping with Lance’s confession, you set that aside and spent time with me on the phone that day and made an impact on *my* life. That in itself is a measure of ‘really good people’.

    People are complicated, and as the saying goes, ‘we are better than the worst thing we’ve ever done’. For some, the falsehoods of Lance will negate the positive impacts he made, I get that. But I also believe that personal positive experiences are just that…personal. Once experienced they are owned by us to do with as we will, and regardless of what the other parties involved do later we are not required to relieve ourselves of those experiences. A divorce due to infidelity does not make the earlier love any less real, and Lance’s house of cards falling down doesn’t mean your day in Austin was any less special. It’s yours to own, cognitive dissonance and all 🙂

    Cheers, and thank you.

    Matt

    February 1, 2013
  3. I’ve written about heroes a lot, as I have had the good fortune to meet so many….we look too far from home, just like how we don’t value a tourist destination if it is in our own state – we have to look far and wide until we latch in on something we can’t look too critically at because of its very distance. Lest we see the scar or the shortcoming. We should teach our children to look closer, to look at their siblings, their parents, relatives, teachers (and not just those who shoot a mean basketball hoop shot from across the court). Heroes are not far away creatures doing death defying, mystifying things – they can be, and should be, close to us, transparent to us, familiar, and within our own reach.

    February 11, 2013

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