We believed in Lance Armstrong.
When trace amounts of corticosteroids, banned during cycling competitions, were found on the way to his 1999 Tour de France victory, we believed his line that they were merely used for a skin rash. In 2004, we trusted that his lawsuit against the publisher of LA Confidential, a book that accused Armstrong of doping, was justified. When he parted ways in 2009 with a doctor that ran an independent, comprehensive anti-doping program, we took him at his word that the reason for his departure was “a myriad of problems relating to administration, coordination, and cost.” We believed him every step of the way.
Then came the interview with Oprah. It was here where Armstrong re-emerged from obscurity to admit what he couldn’t for the last twenty years: that he had indeed used illegal substances. And for once we desperately wanted to disbelieve him. We frantically cast around for far-fetched explanations. But it was all in vain. Because we all knew the sad reality: this time, for perhaps the only time in his cycling career, Armstrong was telling the truth.
As long as he competed in the Tour de France and even after, Armstrong pushed his own self-serving lines, initiating lawsuits and accusing people of libel and defamation when anyone dared raise their voices and question his infallible self of using banned performance-enhancing substances. To hear Armstrong tell the story, he was a victim of “persecution” and “vulture journalism” that sought to disqualify him from his cycling competitions. It is clear now that this story he sold to people around the globe was only a fiction.
Yet this itself is not what is most maddening about the Armstrong case. Doping in cycling is unfortunately as commonplace as smog in Riverside, with over 800 people having at least one run-in during their cycling career. In this sense, Lance Armstrong is no different from the masses of other cyclists and athletes who consciously choose to engage in a misguided Faustian bargain to trade in their ethics for the potential glory that comes with being number one. But what sets Armstrong apart from every other amoral athlete is the way he blatantly exploited his otherwise inspiring personal struggle for personal gain.
In 1995, early in his cycling career and at the young age of 25, Armstrong was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer that had metastasized to his abdomen, lungs and brain. He was given a 40 percent chance of survival. Even if he survived, he would likely be unable to compete in cycling again. But Lance Armstrong beat the odds. More than 15 years after his original cancer diagnosis, there was no recurrence. And not only did he triumph over cancer, he returned to competitive cycling and accomplished what nobody thought possible, especially for a cancer survivor: winning the Tour de France seven consecutive times, more than anybody else in history. Millions of people, cancer survivors and people who had never undergone the tribulation of cancer alike, looked up to him as a shining example of what could be possible. He was hope.
When Lance Armstrong stopped trying to lie to fellow cyclists, cancer survivors and even his own children, he did more than dishonor the sport of cycling. With his public admission, he shattered the hopes and trust of everyone he asked to place their faith in him and his story. He revealed himself to be nothing more than an imposter who spun the tale of a 20-year-old lie and used people’s faith in him to elevate his own narcissistic ambitions and build a legacy undergirded by guile and fraud. All this time, he used people’s trust and goodwill for his personal gain, and thought nothing of harming them when the lies would inevitably fall apart.
Unlike other cyclists, who merely admitted to skirting the rules in order to achieve victory, Lance Armstrong used his otherwise inspiring role as a cancer survivor to construct a brand—his brand. If any athlete won seven consecutive Tour de France victories, it would be a huge accomplishment. But it was Armstrong who won those trophies, Armstrong the cancer survivor. Touting his cancer diagnosis, he leveraged a serious illness into worldwide celebrity. He padded his résumé by becoming the figurehead of his own charity, LiveStrong, convincing people to donate their hard-earned money, even though not a penny of it goes to actual cancer research.
These actions were taken without any consideration for what destruction would occur once the lies brought about by Armstong’s megalomania were revealed. The sport of cycling has never been more discredited now that its most famous champion has admitted to doping. LiveStrong, originally designed with the benign goal of raising cancer awareness, will likely now fade into obscurity, a victim of the close association with its egocentric namesake. Children aspiring to be athletes look at Armstrong with disgust and now trudge disillusioned through the sports world—or worse, they continue to see him as a role model, and in the future will perpetuate the lies and pain Armstrong has single-handedly spread. Armstrong has even managed to bring down a positive view of humanity during his fall, with nobody being a better example of human cruelty and selfishness than Armstrong himself.
The devastation wrought by his egotistical selfishness is now complete. He had been an inspiration to cancer survivors and people that never experienced cancer alike. People who were never before interested in cycling became ardent fans because of the lies he perpetuated for over 15 years. He was the shining example of what people could be if they tried and fought against the odds. Every person that feels betrayed by Armstrong and what he stood for has every right—he did betray everyone who trusted him.
“It’s bad for the sport, for the Tour, and for me,” Armstrong conceded in an interview with Oprah, which he hopes will help rehabilitate him so he can compete in cycling again. But he never mentions the people he trod over during his masquerade: all the people who stood with him, trusted him, and believed him. To us, even an apology is not enough.