Lance Armstrong soared into the stratosphere of global sports superheroes, attracted almost universal (outside of France) love and praise, and became one of the wealthiest athletes on the planet — on a wings of what was, arguably, the most sophisticated cheating operation ever perpetrated by an individual or team in modern sports. The only comparison would be the infamous systemic abuses of former Soviet Bloc nations like East Germany.
There’s no minimizing this story. It’s the magnitude of Lance’s celebrity, the enormity of his accomplishments, the extraordinary nine-figure wealth he accumulated, and the jaw-dropping sophistication of the deception around his own use and his team’s use of performance-enhancing drugs, that makes this such a massive cheating scandal. This was a professional operation — an organized crime operation without the physical violence. It had multiple individuals conspiring to act illegally, to elude the authorities and their investigations, to defraud companies, to silence and intimidate and punish anyone who dared to tell the truth, and to make off with tens of millions of dollars under false pretenses. How is this different from an organized crime operation that, say, rigs the system and tips the gambling odds in your favor, defrauding others out of their money?
And it harms not only Lance. It has harmed the lives of many individuals who told the truth — and were ruthlessly buried by the wrath of Lance Armstrong; it harms the organization he founded and all the people it helps. It betrays the children who looked up to him. And it damages the integrity of sports. Apparently half the peloton at any one time was juicing, but I don’t really care. What’s wrong is wrong, even if others are doing it. Lance had the courage to fight back against testicular cancer, and he had the courage to compete at the highest levels of a very dangerous sport — but he did not have the courage to do the right thing when the selfish thing looked more attractive.
A young man who steals $100 worth of merchandise from an apartment store can end up in prison. Lance amasses over $100,000,000 through fraud, and he gets…what? A two-parter on Oprah?
Lance will lose a lot of money — but he has a lot of money to lose. Presumably he’s hoping that he’s made enough money that he’ll still be rich when all is said and done. He’s suffering global humiliation — but he’s not suffering as badly as he made his “friends” suffer when they questioned his cheating operation or came clean on the corruption within the sport. His triumph over cancer, his laudable foundation work, his inspiration of others to persevere and do good, these are worthy things. But he exploded all of that value by massively cheating, massively lying, and massively denying it and attacking anyone who stood in his way, for decades. I’m grateful his foundation helped people — but now it looks like the charity funded by the mob boss.
Here are words I do not want to hear from Lance Armstrong tonight and tomorrow in the Oprah interview: “Everyone was doing it…The whole sport is corrupt…I’m still proud of what I accomplished.” We know, Lance, that you’re an extraordinary athlete with or without the juice. We know you did not do this alone. We know, or strongly suspect, that there were some within the sports authority structures who enabled this, or took bribes. But this is the important point: apparently everything you accomplished was rising on a tide of performance-enhancing drugs.
I’m angry about this as an athlete. For those who’ve never glanced at my bio, I was a all-around national champion gymnast when I was young. I represented the United States overseas and won numerous event, all-around and team national titles, until a broken neck ended my career in my sophomore year in college. The integrity of the sport — of sports — means a great deal to me. Athletes, whether they like it or not (and Lance clearly did), become heroes to children. Athletes have an opportunity to inspire and edify. And when someone like Lance Armstrong wins it all, for years, and denies cheating for years, and then is exposed as a fraud, it places every other athlete under greater scrutiny, places every other elite athlete under a cloud.
I will forgive Lance Armstrong, because I believe in forgiveness. I believe in redemption, and I hope he finds it. But Lance doesn’t need my forgiveness. (Of course, he has never thought of me for a moment in his life.) He needs the forgiveness of every person whose trust he betrayed, every sponsor whose money he took under false pretenses, every clean competitor he beat out for the cash, every truth-teller whose career he destroyed, every kid who believed in his innocence and faux heroism, and every young athlete who is going to dope — and suffer the consequences — because Lance Armstrong did it. And while he’s at it, he might as well apologize to every athlete who tries to do it right, every athlete who strives for excellence on the basis of her own speed, strength and skill, every athlete who saw the opportunity to cheat but passed it up.
Only by apologizing humbly and absolutely, by helping children learn from the error of his ways, and devoting himself to the good work of his foundation will Lance Armstrong turn this all into something good.