– Derek M. Hansen –
Regardless of what I thought about Lance Armstrong’s accomplishments, or how he attained them, prior to the airing of 60 Minutes’ lead story on May 22nd, 2011, it became brutally obvious that almost everyone’s opinion of the most celebrated cyclist in history will have changed after Tyler Hamilton’s detailed interview. While disgraced Floyd Landis had his chance to air his laundry in the past without much fanfare, the combined testimonies of Hamilton and other longtime Armstrong friend and teammate, George Hincapie, seems to have created a tipping point in the case of Armstrong’s alleged doping history. While there is no “smoking gun” evidence yet, these eyewitness accounts appear undeniable.
It seems inevitable that Armstrong and his legal defense team will continue to deny his past use of illegal performance enhancing drugs regardless of who comes forward. The stakes seem too high for the Armstrong camp and the “deny, deny, deny” defense approach, along with poking holes in the credibility and motives of witnesses, appear to be the only tools left in their rusty toolbox. My favorite retort from the Armstrong camp is, “Lance has been the most tested athlete in the history of sport, with no positives after over 500 tests.” Of course, this provides us with about as much useful information as when I tell people that I haven’t received a speeding ticket for the last 10 years, thus supplying airtight evidence that I never drive over the speed limit. But, can you blame them?
So where is this heading? As far as Lance Armstrong is concerned, I cannot see a positive (pardon the pun) outcome being forthcoming. Even if the federal authorities decide there isn’t a strong case against Armstrong, public opinion will most likely judge Armstrong as a questionable hero when it comes to his cycling accomplishments. However, there are two things that Armstrong will having going for him should the court of public opinion finds he’s guilty of using performance enhancing drugs:
– His contributions to the fight against cancer and the support to cancer victims provided by his Livestrong campaign. The positive energy and momentum provided by Armstrong’s campaign will be seen as an invaluable side-effect of his drug use. He was also a cancer survivor due in large part to many of the drugs he may have abused during his competitive cycling career. But Livestrong and the yellow bracelets have become a cultural phenomenon that we cannot deny. It goes to show that positives can result from what is turning out to be a past negative act.
– The sport of cycling will most likely be painted with a broad brush of guilt when it comes to doping. Since everyone in elite cycling is deemed to have doped, Armstrong will still be seen as a having competed on a level playing field and triumphed due to his superior genetics, tactics, desire and/or training. And, this all after beating an advanced case of cancer. He can be viewed as a victim of the sport, resorting to the tactics that all others were using anyways.
Given these two pertinent issues, I feel that Armstrong’s best course of action over the next few months would be to come clean and admit to use of performance enhancing drugs. I honestly believe that there will not be a mass negative movement against him. Sure, a minority of hardcore fans may still feel betrayed. But I do feel that the general public understands that high-level athletic performances are not simply the product of hard work and good genetics. They understand that there are other factors at play to create record-breaking performances on a regular basis. We are no longer naïve to the realities of super-human feats of speed, strength and endurance. We also understand that many athletes may also suffer debilitating injuries to the brain and body, and can even have a shortened lifespan as a result. These are the realities of high-level sports.
In fact, I am certain that many people believe that if we legalized doping in sports, the world records would not fall at any greater rate. This would be the true indicator of the widespread use of doping at the highest levels of performance, as well as the ineffectiveness of current anti-doping techniques and testing protocols. Thus, if doping were legalized, we would simply have more athletes doing amazing things. The height of performances would not increase, but the depth of high performance would increase as drug use become more prolific and universal. While such an action would yield interesting results, it is by no means the right answer to the problem of doping in sport.
So, why do we have the code of silence and endless denials? Many athletes like Armstrong, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are trying to hold onto this notion of immortality and eternal legacy whether it’s through record breaking accomplishments or recognition in a Hall of Fame. It is not about the money, but entitlement. The fact of the matter is that the more Armstrong denies, the deeper the hole gets and the tougher it will be for him to climb out and restore his reputation when the dust settles.
Watching Tyler Hamilton field the questions on 60 Minutes gave me the obvious impression that these cyclists did not seek out performance enhancing drugs from the start of their cycling careers. They competed in a sport that they loved, they committed their lives to that sport and once they got close to the top, situational factors and peer pressure led them to make a decision which was not incongruent with their career goals. I am certain that Armstrong’s story would be no different. To me his story is still a great one. Man beats cancer. Man goes on to compete successfully at the highest level on par with his competition.
With the use of a good marketing campaign and some frank, sincere admissions, I believe Armstrong could still walk away from this a respected, monumental figure in the history of sports and humanitarian achievements. Others may disagree with my assessment of the situation, judging Armstrong on his terse, self-righteous statements of innocence the past decade, associating his illegal drug use with him being a bad person. While I am by no means a drug-cheat apologist, I do believe that the situation is not black-and-white. And, I believe that Armstrong can salvage his reputation and still retain some credibility when it comes to empowering people who are facing a fight with cancer.
It will be interesting to see how the story plays out and how Lance Armstrong and his team approach the continued onslaught of accusers. Will others come forward to corroborate the testimony of Hamilton and Hincapie? It seems inevitable. The more Armstrong resists and denies, the more he will be relegated to a life of isolation and embarrassment, akin to O.J. Simpson. But there is a solution. It won’t be easy. Follow your own advice: Live strong, be strong and live long. Just come clean Lance!