I cannot pinpoint the moment when I officially became a Lance Armstrong “hater”, but I know that I am one and that I have been for a long time. Despite his constant stream of denials and indignation, I firmly believed that he was a cheater. There was just too much smoke for there not to be some kind of fire.
At the time, I was in the minority. However, over time more and more people began drifting over to the idea that Lance was dirty, culminating in the events of the past few days where even his most ardent (and financially supportive) backers have distanced themselves from him as a tidal wave of evidence has come forth detailing Lance Armstrong as not only a user of performance enhancing drugs, but also the tyrannical ringleader of a systematic doping program.
While one might expect that as a long-time hater, I would take some small amount of joy in finally seeing this scofflaw receive his comeuppance. The fact of the matter is, I have long stopped thinking or caring about Lance Armstrong, so the specifics of the news of the week really haven’t registered very much with me. But what I do find of interest is the question of what does this mean for the legacy of LiveStrong?
There is no doubt that as the medical profession has worked to beat back and subdue a world of infectious diseases, cancer has stepped into the void as the bane of human health. The money raised and distributed to research and patient support through the LiveStrong movement is well documented, as well as the intangible benefits of providing hope and determination to cancer patients and their loved ones when both of those commodities are severely lacking. But at what cost?
This pure and noble cause was built on the foundation of a lie. People flocked to this man and this cause in part because of the idea that Lance Armstrong beat cancer and then went on to beat the world of professional cycling with nothing but grit, determination and unrelenting belief in oneself. There are probably thousands of organizations which are dedicated to prevention of cancer and the support of those with cancer. But LiveStrong struck a chord with the public and became a touchstone in the fight against cancer mostly because of the unique story of its founder.
So now that the central drawing point of this organization has been revealed as a sham, does it undo all of the good that has been done? More importantly, does Lance Armstrong deserve some degree of absolution from his choices because in the end it resulted in so much good for so many people? Does it really even matter that he cheated, and did so with impunity, because “everyone else” in the world of professional cycling was doing the same thing?
The proverb “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” dates back over a thousand years to Saint Bernard and is probably just as relevant to today’s world as it was back then. It is hard not to ponder the meaning of this when looking at Lance and his foundation. But it is also easy for me to judge and dismiss, for I never really committed to the story. I never bought a yellow rubber bracelet or a T-shirt. I have also never had to pump chemicals into my veins so caustic that it causes my hair to fall out and my skin to blister all in the name of trying to salvage any possibility of a life beyond cancer, trying to latch on to any iota of hope that makes that pain tolerable or worthwhile. How do those who are truly invested feel this week? Do they just separate the man from the mission? Do they not care because of what the end result was? Do they feel like they got taken by a snake-oil selling charlatan?
It is never easy to see our heroes stumble and fall, but such is usually the fate of the hero. The traits that cause the hero to rise up to the challenge and to succeed against improbable odds are the same traits that eventually lead to his or her downfall. But while in literature, the story ones to a close after the fall, in this case, the story has just begun. And the ending depends in part on whether or not you side with Saint Bernard.