As strange as it may seem an eerie parallel may run between the legacy of cyclist Lance Armstrong and that of the fictional Harvey Dent from the latest instalment of the Batman series, “The Dark Knight”. After the popularly proclaimed white knight of the piece, Harvey Dent is psychologically crippled and his previously upstanding character altered by the games of the villainous Joker, he loses his way and becomes consumed by a bloody revenge for the troubles he has endured. While he is ultimately killed off in the midst of his attempts to extract vengeance by murdering a member of the lieutenants family whom he believes to have failed him, the decision is made to protect the reputation and preserve the legacy of Gotham’s White Knight blaming his death instead on a rogue act by Batman the Dark Knight and never revealing the severity of the character degeneration the joker has imparted on Harvey Dent. The pretence is that what Gotham needs at this time is the reassurance that their popular hero was the man they thought he was, even if it was not the truth. The image of an infallible Dent and what it stood for was far more important then the truth about him. In a sporting context maybe the same is true of Lance Armstrong.
Last week’s admission by disgraced former Tour De France winner Floyd Landis that he had doped for the majority of his career as well as the sensational if somewhat tired allegations that he was not alone and that scores of other elite cyclists had been involved in similar elaborate practises of consumption and evasion have yet again thrust Lance Armstrong into what can only be described as an increasingly suspicious limelight, bringing the legitimacy of his career heroics into question. Of course people will for the most part discount Floyd Landis’s specific accusations because in reality his credibility is about as high as Jamie Redknapp’s IQ and not only that but the allegations reek of an ugly desperation to have others fall on cycling’s increasingly jagged sword along with him. All this considered do, Landis is far from alone in attempting to incriminate Armstrong, who has seen a significant number of his former US postal team (Landis amongst them) either be caught for or admit to taking performance enhancing drugs throughout their careers. Paul Kimmage at the Sunday Times has long been suspicious and even accusatory, while other former riders as well as Armstrong employees have also chimed in. In other words Landis’s accusations really only carry any weight at all because they are not made in a vacuum. Yet it still has to be pointed out however that Lance Armstrong has never been reprimanded for a failed doping test throughout his prestigious career (he did offer one positive sample in 1999 but was cleared on a medical exemption). However given that Landis himself was definitively caught only once over a career of persistent drug use, this lack of a guilty conviction alone does not prove his innocence.
From a personal point of view where I stand on it all is largely irrelevant but yet may be indicative of an admittedly illogical position held by more. We may all want truth and justice but it depends as to at what price. Who benefits if Armstrong is guilty? Floyd Landis? A disgruntled group of investigatory journalists? Where do we stand on the costs versus the benefits? Personally, I’ve generally been inclined to root for Lance Armstrong both on his bike and in his constant struggle to preserve his good name. Mostly this is derived from the fact that as the man we are presented with there is very little not to admire? Winner of the world’s premier cycling event, The Tour de France on seven consecutive occasions (1999-2005) in an admittedly murky period for the sport is one thing. A dating history that includes musician Sheryl Crowe and the gorgeous actress Kate Hudson is something entirely different. All these things aside however, what is undeniably the most obviously impressive and endearing of all Armstrong’s achievements, and what sets his legacy apart from those of his contemporaries is his much publicised yet undeniably heroic battle with testicular cancer.
In truth the outside world cannot and should not but marvel at the sheer willpower and determination with which the unconquerable Texan battled a prognosis which was originally quite bleak. His character in this time was simply inspirational. By the time Armstrong was diagnosed and began to receive treatment, the disease had spread from source and ended up with Armstrong enduring operations to remove tumours both from his brain and testicles as well as extensive chemotherapy. Having entered remission in 1997, Armstrong immediately set about establishing the Lance Armstrong Foundation as a way of promoting cancer research and supporting the medicinal fight against the disease. His continued work in this regard has been incredible while the impact his foundation has had in promoting and furthering the cause has been resounding. For the mainstream his work was probably greatest noticed by the popularity of the bright yellow Livestrong wristbands which adorned the wrists of millions of people in support of the cause a few short years ago. Even today although the wristbands have mostly disappeared, Lance’s commitment to the cause is as unwavering as ever.
Clearly all these bits and pieces feed into the makings of a man who frankly demands our reverance and resultantly, makes us want to believe that he is clean. That he achieved greatness in a noble fashion only. It might be in contradiction to the logic our minds suggests but it is undoubtedly what most people want to believe.
Ignoring however what we want to believe for a moment do, stripping away the sentiment and focusing on the cold hard logic of it all raises the question of what we should believe about Lance. Unquestionably The Tour De France as an event is a concept so gruelling that the very idea seems like it could only have been conjured by the devil himself. Run over the course of three tortuous weeks, the tour in its entirety comprises approximately 3600 kilometres of cycling, significant parts of which take place up and the down the steep inclines of the Pyrenees Mountains. Given the physical demands surely the whole event compromises the sporting manifestation of where performance enhancing drug users and non drug users should be separated the most. An advertisement for their potency. What do I mean by this well, think Michelle Smith the shameful Irish Olympian who won three gold medals in Atlanta having cheated her way to new heights from what had until then been a fairly mediocre international career. Or further back think of notorious American swimmer Shirley Babashoff often acclaimed as one of the greatest swimmers of all time who was robbed of individual gold medals at the 76 Olympics in Montreal by a team of pharmaceutically enhanced East Germans who had trailed in her wake only months before. Endurance sports such as swimming, athletics and cycling it would seem should be the arenas where drug use stands to be the most beneficial. Drugs such as EPO or HGH make you run faster, last longer, lift heavier, jump higher, recover quicker etc. The scientific process how they individually achieve this is irrelevant, the fact is that in endurance or physically based sports they offer a distinct advantage. Here therefore is where Landis’s testimony is most incriminating of Armstrong, the theory of guilt by comparable deeds if you will. Put simply, the very fact that Landis amongst others cheated for sustained periods of time and yet still lost to the supposedly clean Armstrong raises quite the few eyebrows. Personally, I find it seemingly impossible to believe that any athlete could have overcome the odds of beating the world’s greatest cyclists, enhanced by the worlds greatest pharmicists for seven straight years. This is not football or something where the use could be quantified to an extent by saying player A will not necessarily be better then player B if he takes drugs. In such contests, individual impulsive decision making, as well as subtleties like skill and touch are imperative to success and thankfully can not yet be replicated in the lab. Cycling however is almost purely an endurance sport whichever way you look at it.
In the wider context of drugs in sport how we should even view these things anymore is debatable. Things have almost now reached a stage where as an audience we are naturally suspicious of every seemingly amazing achievement. It’s not our fault however. Our cynicism has been hard earned, developed by years of shameful confessions and disheartening test results from former heroes. In a strange way certain people’s tolerances to them may be increasing. It varies across sports, baseball despite seemingly fostering an acceptance of drugs for a long time has so far abstained from enshrining suspected or confirmed drug cheats with hall of fame calibre careers in their hall of fame. The premise being that these players cannot stand in the same place as those who went before and achieved what they did in the spirit of fair competition while simultaneously upholding their sports integrity. This is a culture that should be applauded and upheld across all sports if the seeming trend towards a tolerance for doping is ever to be reversed. However the fact that critical legacies may need to be torn down for this to happen makes it a thankless and exceptionally difficult battle.
As icon after icon continues to falter in different ways all around us, from Tiger Woods to John Terry the wisdom of ever humanising these mock heroes comes into question. The heroes we need and therefore the heroes we know compared with how our heroes may really be is an important distinction. Put simply, what would it do for us and perhaps more importantly for the impressionable sporting youth to find out that a man so popularly revered for his sporting exploits, cancer struggle and charity work was in fact a manipulative doped up mercenary? Across the current sporting stratosphere, young millionaires are anointed as role models often before they are ready, and always whether it is appropriate or not. However this is not the case with Armstrong, he is different, a cancer survivor, and an ardent philanthropist as much as he is a cyclist. Again a distinction can even be drawn between the most recent and notorious example of a sports star miscast in our eyes. Tiger Woods, whose Dorian Gray like double life forced a completely different picture to be painted of Tiger then the one we had previously been presented with for an entire career is not really comparable with Lance. What Tiger was and is as a transcendent generational athlete most likely will not be sullied by personal issues. He rightfully remains a hero to many even still. After all, the lies we were told (or at least which we know to date) were personal, not professional. The same cannot be said of the charges brought against the similarly transcendent Texan. One has to feel that any conviction of or admission to guilt would be far more damaging than anything Tiger has so far plead guilty to. And maybe in truth that’s why we’ll never get one, despite how much our logic may demand it.
While there may be no Dark Knight to shoulder the collective burdens in this sporting reality, the image is still pertinent. After all as Lieutenant James Gordon recounts Batman “is the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now”. That after a tumultuous year for sporting heroes so far, appears to be a clean Lance Armstrong, the sporting world’s White Knight.