This month we asked our writers to revisit their most indelible memories of 2012.
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I may be the only person who ever looked at Lance Armstrong and thought of Pee-wee Herman.
Pee-wee Herman did this movie where he’s riding a bicycle down a hill ...
He’s going lickety-split, knees churning, and veers into a yard.
He hits a kid’s wagon or something.
He goes flying ass over tea kettle.
Lands on the ground.
Says, “I meant to do that.”
I kept waiting for it to happen to Armstrong. Finally, it did. So I loved 2012. It was the year Lance Armstrong got his.
All those years before, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about the bracelets identifying friends of mine who had somehow bought into the fraud. I didn’t care how fast Armstrong pedaled past French farmers up a big hill. I didn’t care about the dark childhood or the cancer. I wanted to know only one thing. When would he tell the truth?
The cheating was one thing. I understood it. The Spandexed freaks who do the Tour de France have always felt the need to cheat. A century ago, looking for an edge in an event that makes outrageous demands on a body, the riders found that edge in small amounts, very small amounts, of a substance that stimulated the central nervous system. That substance was strychnine, of which more than a small amount produced not stimulation but death.
The lying was another thing, maddening. Serious cyclists have always known how Armstrong won all those yellow jerseys ... Eight years ago -- eight years ago -- I wrote a column for the Sporting News that began with a rider’s prediction of how that summer’s Tour de France cheating would go down:
In the next day or two, French police may interrupt the world’s most famous cycling race, the Tour de France, to arrest distributors of illegal drugs and perhaps those riders using them. “The critical days to plan a raid,” says a cycling buff who has studied the underbelly of the sport, “are the evenings of July 20 and 21 and again on Friday evening, the 23rd. These evenings will be massive doping/recovery sessions for the top contenders and their teams, too. It will be a shell game. They will not use their hotel rooms. Where will the safe house be?” The more important question, perhaps, is where will Lance Armstrong be?
So I counted every Armstrong denial of doping as a lie. It was especially maddening when he presented as proof of innocence the lie that he had never failed a drug test. That was his favorite lie because he could simultaneously lie and insult the intelligence of the people he considered his inferiors. Because of baseball’s steroid issues, I had talked to enough scientists and experts on PEDs to know that only a fool ever failed a drug test -- and for all the hell that Armstrong brought down on himself, no one ever called him a fool. The more often he denied doping, spicing the denials with threats of lawsuits, the more he seemed to be bragging that he was too clever to be caught. His hubristic defiance reached its peak in a Nike commercial. Blood is taken from his right arm. We hear Armstrong’s voice-over: “This is my body. I can do whatever I want to it.” Then came dramatic scenes of the rider in training. Finally, this bite-me coda: “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”
Now we know about the shell game and the safe house and what he really did with his body and we know all the spy-novel intrigue that accompanied Armstrong’s victories. An investigation by the United States Anti-Doping Agency concluded that he did more than just cheat and lie. He created, sustained and operated “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program the sport has ever seen.” He was the all-time champ cheater. Eleven teammates, including Armstrong’s closest associates, admitted their own doping and testified against him.
Armstrong’s world collapsed. He lost the Tour de France victories. He was banned from professional cycling. He lost his big-money sponsors, even the Nike enablers. He lost control of the Livestrong foundation built on his name. He was called a liar, a cheat, a snake, a hypocrite, a bully, a sociopath.
The cheating, the lying -- he wasn’t alone in that.
But he was alone in his exploitation of a disease that kills millions of people.
The story of his recovery from testicular cancer made him more than just another world-class athlete. With the story, he became a marketable commodity paid millions by corporate sponsors. The eerie part of the story, usually left unsaid, is that he may have caused his own cancer; there is evidence connecting steroid abuse and testicular cancer. I should say here, too, that this is not to argue against Livestrong. The organization helped patients understand the disease and make their way through the bureaucracy of treatment. It’s also true that Armstrong’s story encouraged many patients. For that and for giving his name and time to Livestrong, Armstrong deserves credit.
And it’s possible I’m angry with Armstrong when the blame more properly should fall on the myth-makers in his thrall. They paint him as St. Lance who by the mighty strength of his iron will took on cancer and beat it. They say if he can do it, you can do it if only you try the way Lance did. My father died of lung cancer at age 51. To say you can survive if only you really, really try is to suggest that people who die are deficient in tenacity, courage, spirit. That’s more than offensive, it’s cruel. The truth is, cancer in its killing stages kills everyone in its way. Armstrong’s cancer was of an easily cured kind; within a month of treatment, he was riding again. He survived because he had the best possible treatment and was luckier than hell; his cancer had not grown beyond the reach of chemotherapy and what neurosurgeons called a simple procedure to remove lesions from his brain. In the end, the cancer story helped make him wealthy. And the good works of Livestrong became a shield against criticism, as if anyone challenging the saint had come out in favor of letting people die.
It's all over, the cheating, the lying, the exploitation of cancer. I now want to know only one thing. When will he tell the truth? He has effectively confessed, by accepting the USADA’s judgments and by falling silent after a decade of denials. But when will he say it out loud? In The New Yorker, a disappointed Armstrong loyalist, the writer Michael Specter, said this:
“He should do what a man who cared about the millions of people whom he inspired with seven straight victories in the Tour de France would do. He should stand up, in front of the same microphones and cameras that he has used to berate those people who challenged his honesty, and he should tell the world what he has done. And then he should ask our forgiveness. I am certain that I, and all those other fools who believed in him, have earned it.”
Maybe then he would earn some respect. Maybe.