In the annals of unintentional irony, the commercial now ranks somewhere between protest signs reading KEEP GOVT OUT OF MY MEDICARE and Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf’s confident declaration that there were no Americans at the Baghdad airport. It’s a Nike spot, featuring Lance Armstrong, released 11 years ago.
Here is the cyclist, subjecting himself to what looks like a drug test, a white-gloved doctor jamming a needle into his arm, flashbulbs popping all around. And here is Armstrong, riding alone.
On a highway.
In a wind tunnel.
Hooked up to lab equipment.
In the rain at night.
“Everybody wants to know what I'm on,” Armstrong says in a voiceover. “What am I on? I'm on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”
These days? Our high horses, mostly. As it turns out, Armstrong allegedly -- ahem -- was on more than his bike, a sophisticated doping regimen to shame an East German swim coach. Or maybe the Carolina Panthers’ 2005 Super Bowl squad. Think steroids. Steroids mixed with olive oil. The blood-booster EPO. Transfusions. Painstaking efforts to avoid detection.
According to a massive, book-length report released by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, one of Armstrong’s team doctors once flushed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of performance-enhancing drugs down a toilet in a panic, fearing that French police were closing in. Never mind that said toilet was self-contained, located in a camper van. Meanwhile, Armstrong went so far as to inject Actovegin, a drug extracted from calf’s blood. Which is not only cheating, but also kind of gross.
Oh, and at the same time Armstrong was doing his best to grow a glow-in-the-dark Third Ear, he was defiantly proclaiming his innocence. Boasting again and again that he has never failed a drug test. Siccing his highly paid lawyers upon anyone and anything with the gall to suggest otherwise. Enforcing a nasty, behind-the-scenes omertà among those who knew the truth.
Not surprisingly, plenty of people are pissed. UCI, cycling’s governing body, has stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and banned him from the sport for life. The Tour is expected to remove his name from the record books. He might lose an Olympic medal. He could be the target of civil lawsuits. Armstrong has stepped down as the chairman of Livestrong, the cancer awareness charity he founded. He has lost all of his sponsors: Oakley sunglasses, Anheuser-Busch beer, Trek bicycles. Even Nike -- the same image-obsessed company that stuck by Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant through a slew of unflattering headlines -- dumped him.
Armstrong lied. (Supposedly.) He cheated. (According to reports.) Many of those who made him a hero now feel betrayed.
Frankly, they should have known better.
The signs were there. Almost from the start. There were smoldering guns, like a suspicious 1999 positive test for a corticosteroid, which Armstrong claimed came from a cream used to treat saddle sores. Or Armstrong’s longtime working relationship with Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, banned by the Italian Cycling Federation for allegedly supplying riders with banned substances. Or a disputed French newspaper report that six urine samples taken from Armstrong at the 1999 Tour later tested positive for EPO. There were eyewitness accusations, too, coming from former teammates, the wife of a former teammate, a one-time personal assistant and Armstrong’s former masseuse. Armstrong never failed a drug test? Experts ranging from epidemiologists to Victor Conte agree that testing only catches the stupid and the lazy.
Besides, pretty much every other world-class cyclist Armstrong was throttling up and down Pyrenees and on the picturesque boulevards of Paris -- from Jan Ullrich to Ivan Basso -- has been linked to doping as well. With good reason. Cycling is like professional football, hell on the human body, irredeemably reliant on the pill and the needle; take away performance-enhancing drugs, and neither sport is likely possible, let alone survivable. Believing that Armstrong won the world’s most punishing endurance race an unprecedented seven consecutive times without pharmacological assistance means believing that he was not only vastly superior to his rivals, but vastly superior to his rivals on drugs. It means believing that Armstrong was -- literally -- superhuman.
Of course, that has always been the real problem.
Why did so many miss what was hiding in plain sight? Because Armstrong was a hero. Which made him different. Better than the rest of us. He became an article of faith. He was viewed and judged accordingly. Not as a man, with warts and flaws and failings, but rather as an inspirational narrative. A fairy tale. A best-selling story about surviving and fighting, grit and perseverance. Armstrong’s ornery, me-against-the-world attitude was why he whipped all comers: cancer, the Tour, bitter, jealous haters, nosy French journalists. That same ethos couldn’t possibly mean winning bicycle races at all costs. Or lead to strong-arming and intimidating friends, teammates and personal assistants alike, anyone and everyone who spoke out against him. It couldn’t possibly make Armstrong something of a sanctimonious jerk, if not a borderline sociopath, taking advantage of hope-hungry cancer victims to wrap himself in bishop’s robes.
Even now, people still want to believe. Smart people. Thoughtful people. They want to bifurcate Armstrong, put Cancer Jesus Lance over here and Cheating Jerk Lance over there. Build a firewall between them, between Armstrong’s good work in raising funds for cancer awareness and his distasteful deeds inside and outside cycling. I think that’s crazy. Schizophrenic. I think there’s no separating the two. Because without doping, there are no Tour victories. No yellow bracelets. There’s just Lance Armstrong, a bike-riding guy with a nice little story, finishing somewhere deep in the peloton. Anonymous and forgotten. That guy doesn’t found a well-known charitable organization that reportedly has spent almost as much money on fundraising as actual cancer research grants. That guy doesn’t license the Livestrong brand name to a for-profit online content farm in exchange for personal stock shares.
That guy doesn’t even get the chance.
Every year, countless people fight and beat cancer, including people in my own family. All of them are heroic. None of them are venerated. None of them are featured in Nike commercials because -- sorry -- nobody else really cares. Not unless those survivors also do something superhuman.
Not unless they give us something to believe in.
People are angry at Armstrong. Maybe they shouldn’t stop there. After all, his greatest sin wasn’t doping. Or lying. Or even being a bully, small and petty and cruel. Armstrong’s greatest sin was being human, only doing so in a way that made it easy for the rest of us to think otherwise. To fool ourselves. Armstrong was on drugs. He also was on his bike. What were we on? The same thing we’re always on. Self-delusion.