So the big news is that USADA is finally charging Lance Armstrong with doping—really and for true! Let’s consider this for a moment: nearly two full years after one of cycling’s greatest practically washed out of the 2010 Tour, Travis Tygart is going after Armstrong for what he claims is clear evidence of doping. Among the penalties Armstrong is said to face is the possibility that he could be stripped of all seven of his Tour de France victories. While there is some doubt that could take place, what is very real is that Armstrong’s nascent triathlon career has been encased in carbonite.
It’s an event more problematic than whether or not Los Angeles will behave itself for the Stanley-cup-winning Kings parade, but a good deal less important than, say, the civil war in Syria.
Why problematic? This will prove to be a lengthy, costly case. Armstrong has already begun to remind the public that these are tax dollars at work. The argument that this is a bad use of tax dollars is a red herring. The moment we question whether doping cases should be prosecuted with tax dollars, the whole of USADA’s mission enters the blades of the combine. The more appropriate question is what good can come of this?
Several outspoken cyclists have commented that we should pursue the case because if you gradually clear away all the dopers you will, at some point, end up with a clean rider. It’s an idiotic assertion. What you eventually end up with is a rider who just never got tested. If every rider were tested at the end of each race or each stage of a stage race, it would be another matter, but it has been possible for riders to go weeks or more without being tested. Clear away doper upon doper from the ’90s and what you are left with is a guy you just can’t prove is clean, nor can you prove he doped. What kind of improvement is that?
The problem isn’t that Armstrong is innocent. If you’re reading this, it’s highly unlikely that you believe he’s innocent. Lance Armstrong is Santa Claus for grownups. Sorta. The world can be divided into those who believe Armstrong is innocent of doping and those who believe his innocence is as possible as the elimination of the student loan debt.
Armstrong has even been called the cancer Jesus. It’s a rich vein of irony, waiting for a pickaxe. There’s the obvious miracle of his seven straight Tour wins—statistically, it’s a stunner. The miracle that no accusation could stick. The messianic quality he has in giving those on death’s door hope. And then the wry fact that Armstrong himself is an atheist. But I’m not here to poke fun at religion, or at Armstrong, for that matter.
Armstrong has not one, but two dilemmas. In a tweet earlier today I used the hashtag #roadrunnerandcoyote to point out the inevitability of Travis Tygart’s pursuit of Armstrong. Tygart and USADA are his front-burner problem. He’s got to deal with this and he has to deal with it convincingly for everyone who still puts out cookies and milk on Christmas eve. History suggests that with his batting record, he will find a way out. He has on every previous occasion. The odds seem to favor him even now.
But Armstrong has a bigger problem. Competition is his raison d’etre. He nearly spelled that out when he came out of retirement by telling the world that he was most useful to the LiveStrong foundation as a competitor. As a competitor, he’s an example of clean living (try not to snicker), and that’s what gives hope to millions. When he’s hanging out on the beach with Matthew McConaughey or dating one of the Olsen twins (which one was it?), he’s just a playboy, which is to say a rich slacker. Not exactly role model stuff.
So, to continue his role as “the cancer Jesus” he needs to stay in the public eye as a competitor, whether as a cyclist, triathlete or marathoner. It’s a tough part to play. After all, there’s a shelf-life for everyone who plays at the most elite of levels. And unless Tygart gets taken out by a band of ronin, he’s not going to tire of playing Javert.
Which brings us to Tygart’s problem. And yes, Tygart has a problem. He’s beginning to seem like Inspector Javert chasing Jean Valjean. Armstrong stands accused of much more than Valjean was, but the great tragedy of Hugo’s Les Miserables is that Javert pursues Valjean relentlessly, showing a capacity for cruelty and spite that suggests he’s more of a villain than Valjean ever was.
And that is Tygart’s problem. He risks looking like a tyrant and losing public support for his efforts. He could make Armstrong look like a victim.
The other oft-asked question is why Armstrong won’t just come clean (pun intended). The reason is Tygart. Armstrong still has much to lose. LiveStrong isn’t worth much without Armstrong, no matter what the foundation says. They need him because he is the brand, their best advertising.
So back to that earlier, unanswered question of what good can come of this prosecution. I’m going to assert that nothing good can be achieved. We can’t really change the results, not at this point. Armstrong will forever be remembered as the winner of seven Tours de France. Try and strip them away and soon enough that asterisk that says “stripped of victory” will be forgotten, the exact details washed away from the public consciousness the way no one remembers Oliver North’s specific misdeeds. Let’s bear in mind: There is doping going on today, doping that needs to be stopped and chasing the past will really do nothing to help us in today’s fight. And frankly, I know a bunch of racers who are angry enough about facing doping in masters races they are ready to do some back-alley ass whooping. A full-court prosecution of Armstrong will take a lot of human capital that could be devoted otherwise.
It seems unlikely that these proceedings will result in anything that pleases anyone. And that means we are left with a decision. How do we want to remember Armstrong? There are plenty of cyclists out there who despise big Tex. It seems that some of the dislike for him comes from his alpha-male demeanor. Others dislike him for simply dominating the Tour for seven years. And I suppose some are angry that he seems to have gotten away with stuff that sank other riders. But the most surprising group are those who have told me they feel betrayed by Armstrong, that they believed he was innocent and now they see those years of his wins as a bushel of lies. I wonder if maybe this isn’t mostly embarrassment at having been naive enough to drink the Kool-Aid.
Armstrong won in a dirty time. Stripping him of his victories won’t fix that. And unless WADA is prepared to go after every cyclist who rode at that time, the pursuit of Armstrong will be perceived as unjust because it is an unequal enforcement effort. Forgetting for a moment all the foreign riders who will never be pursued—the Spaniards especially—what of other American riders? What of George Hincapie? Does anyone really think he was clean? Is the only reason to leave his meager legacy intact just that—because it was meager?
Some of the bitterness for Armstrong smacks of the “I never loved her anyway” that follows high school breakups, which is my way of insulting some of the anger directed at him as being childish.
And so now I’m going to say something I suspect will be wildly unpopular: I cherish those years. I loved watching Armstrong win. I recall sitting near the top of the Col du Glandon in 2004 and watching le train bleu come by at the speed of freeway traffic and hearing the guys chatting and laughing within the pack—laughing! I walked back to our van with a stupid grin on my face, knowing I’d seem something special. I’d have to stop to think about all the stages that I watched with the same breathless anxiety that school girls reserved for the Beatles. I loved every minute of it.
Lance doped. He’s not gonna confess. We can’t fix the past, but we can police the present. So unless you’re prepared to see all of cycling burned down like Dresden, let’s leave it alone.