Lance Armstrong wanted to win so badly that his team “ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”, the United States Anti-Doping Agency report on Lance Armstrong released this week says.
These findings have been psychologically devastating for many people, particularly those for whom the cyclist was a heroic icon of how the human spirit can triumph over disease, injury and adversity. My own sons and his friends were inspired by Armstrong’s autobiography and this week’s revelations have strengthened cynicism in a world hungry for ideals.
I have a close friend who recently lost an arm in a cycling accident and who is devastated by what he sees as the betrayal of Armstrong by former team-mates – when I talked to him before the release of the report, just after Armstrong had said he would not legally contest it, he did not falter in his admiration for the man. If Lance could win the Tour de France after suffering from cancer, then anything is possible for millions of people facing adversity.
But the details of the report are dismaying. Armstrong I have no doubt was involved in systematic doping and this played a part in the series of remarkable wins by his team in the world’s premier cycle race.
But does this mean that we should discard him as an icon of how the human spirit can trump adversity? Let us remember this: in 1996 this man started coughing blood and was found to have testicular cancer so advanced that it had spread to his lungs and seeded two metastases in his brain.
Refusing radiotherapy for the brain tumors because of potential effects of balance, he endured regime after grueling regime of chemotherapy until the exhausted but poisoned cells of his body finally expelled the cancer. Just two years later, in 1998, in a supreme act of physical and moral courage, he started competing again, and in 1999, he won the Tour de France. Doping or no doping, this is the stuff of heroes.
But heroes are always flawed. “Great men are almost always bad men”,’ Lord Acton said immediately after his famous ‘power corrupts’ quote. This is because greatness demands a single-minded desire to win. It does not matter whether it is political, artistic, scientific, business or sporting success that is in question – to become great requires a single-mindedness that will always cause casualties and collateral damage.
Read any biography of a great man or woman and you will almost always find evidence of the ruthlessness, cruelties and immoralities that arose from their single-minded pursuit of greatness. President John F Kennedy is just one example: According to the veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, JFK was personally responsible for overthrowing and murdering his friend South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, because Diem wanted to negotiate with the communist north.[i]
This is not to justify Armstrong’s doping, but the fact is that doping in cycling was very, very prevalent, and Armstrong was the best at doing it, if we are to accept the USADA report.
Armstrong took testosterone, which is a natural hormone in the body, and which would have been depleted due to the testicular damage the cancer had caused him. By taking testosterone he would have increased aggression and motivation among other things, but something else would have triggered even more testosterone – winning. Not just winning any particular race, but winning the day to day battles that he fought in clawing his way back not just to life – but to greatness in life, albeit a flawed greatness.
I am not forgetting those heroes of the Tour de France who sacrificed everything to compete and who did not dope themselves. I do not underestimate the bitterness they must feel towards Armstrong and his team. After all, we compete to win and if the chance of winning has been stolen from us, it risks making the sacrifices of the competition seem futile and worthy of regret.
But that is not my point. Lance Armstrong is still a heroic figure for doing what he did after cancer almost killed him. I want my sons and my friend to keep this example of the human spirit bright in their minds as an inspiration but to remember that greatness is always flawed. Winning by cheating is not true victory, but triumphing over cancer in such circumstances, is.