Lance Armstrong: A cheater? Five reasons why we don’t care

We live in a society that rewards winners and encourages people to do whatever it takes to win, writes Young.

The "emotional resonance of Lance Armstrong's victories" still registers even if cycling's most prominent bodies rewrite the history books to suggest that Armstrong never competed in the Tour de France [Reuters]

On Monday, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), following the recommendation of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), concluded that professional cyclist Lance Armstrong had used performance enhancing drugs and treatments during the high-points of his long cycling career. 

It decided to strip the (in)famous  athlete of his seven Tour de France wins. Perhaps, adding insult to injury, Pat McQuaid, UCI president, boldly declared, “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling”. 

This announcement is the latest in the fallout stemming from the USADA’s public report which offered compelling evidence suggesting that Armstrong, alongside teammates, regularly used performance enhancing drugs. 

In recent weeks, the famed cyclist has lost several major endorsement deals, including Nike, and resigned as chairman of his Livestrong Foundation. Over the next few days, as a result of the UCI’s pronouncement, the name “Lance Armstrong” will likely be scrubbed from the competition logs and the history books. It will be as if Armstrong never competed (much less won) in any of cycling’s biggest stages. 

Although he retired from professional cycling more than a year ago, Lance Armstrong remains the most identifiable and, likely, popular athlete in that particular sport. Indeed, many people would be hard pressed to name a cyclist other than him. 

The renewed focus on the celebrated cyclist prompts a question: do people really care that Lance Armstrong may have employed performance enhancing drugs and cheated? Odds are that most people are willing to overlook the retired athlete’s alleged misdeeds. Here’s why: 

Lance Armstrong is still a survivor

The narrative of triumph remains. As much as Lance Armstrong has been praised for his multiple Tour de France victories, the larger story has always been his victory over testicular cancer.


 ‘Enough is enough’ for Lance Armstrong

It was his grit and determination in his battle against this devastating and life threatening disease that won him the adulation of millions of fans. The fact that he won against cancer was always a bigger (and more interesting) accomplishment than anything that he did on a bicycle. 

Indeed, his cycling feats were noteworthy, in part, because he was able to get back on the bike and compete at a high level after having his body wracked by the disease and the treatments to combat it. That yellow wristband, the Livestrong bracelet, symbolises the tenacity to not surrender. The victories were a bonus. 

There’s cheating and then there’s cheating

The reality is that Lance Armstrong woke up every morning, climbed on his bicycle, stayed on the course, and pedalled scores of kilometres for nearly 23 consecutive days. 

Although the actual distance covered changes every year due to course alterations, the Tour de France route is typically 3,300km (2,000 miles) long. That’s more kilometres than I drive in a month. 

Armstrong biked each and every one of them. Had he employed a motorised bike, taken a short cut along the route, or skipped a few days of cycling, that would have been a more serious violation. Instead, he allegedly took treatments to help his body recover more quickly from the devastation exacted by the competition itself. 

You can’t unwrite past memories

In stripping Armstrong of his victories, the UCI is asking us to collectively forget his multiple wins. They are instructing us to erase the memories of him wearing the coveted yellow jersey and riding through the streets of Paris and drinking a glass of champagne (given to him by a supporter) en route to the finish line and the victor’s podium. 

It is one thing to ban Armstrong from the sport for life but another to notify millions of spectators that their memories are now fraudulent. 

The emotional resonance of Lance Armstrong’s victories still registers even if cycling’s most prominent bodies rewrite the history books to suggest that a person by the name of Lance Armstrong never competed in the Tour de France. 

Cycling is not the most dramatic sport

As every cycling enthusiast will tell you, the sport is bigger than the Tour de France in much the same way that football continues to be played in non-World Cup years. That being said, the Tour de France is the sport’s biggest stage – and, admittedly, is not among the most riveting of the major international professional sports. 

“… I would rather expend energy trying to prevent the next person from running afoul of the rules
than scrubbing history books to erase the names of accused cheaters or revising the memories that I hold dear.”

I admit that I watch the television coverage of the Tour de France but, to be completely honest, I tune in not to track the movements of individual cyclists but to appreciate the background scenery. 

Unlike baseball or football (either the US or international variety) to which I pay close, close attention to the performances of individual players: the post-season challenges of Alex Rodriguez, the tightness of Peyton Manning’s spiral, the “bend” in a David Beckham kick, I turn on my television and set the channel to the Tour de France with the aim of experiencing something akin to a travelogue.  

The Tour introduces me to quaint French towns to which I’ve mostly never been and probably may never visit. To watch the Tour, as televised, offers the vicarious thrill of travel accompanied with some measure of sport intrigue. 

Cycling is an interesting sport but not a universally popular one. A scandal that rocks the firmament of cycling is little more than a dark cloud in the larger sports world and, perhaps, barely registers in our lives of casual fans. 

History is written by winners and, yes, some winners have cheated

This is a hard truth of life. We live in a society that rewards winners and encourages people to do whatever it takes to win. 

Political campaigns frequently distort the truth to paint their opposition in unflattering ways in order to win votes. Scientists sometimes steal the research of others and attempt to be the “first to file” a patent in order to win the rich rewards of their discoveries. Wars, typically, are won by those who will to do anything to gain an advantage. 

Rather than accept a culture of cheating or looking back and retrospectively punishing those who found a way to skirt the rules, we need to look forward and to institute controls that will minimise the chances of such rule-breaking in the future. 

Some people will seek out ways to cheat. That being said, I would rather expend energy trying to prevent the next person from running afoul of the rules than scrubbing history books to erase the names of accused cheaters or revising the memories that I hold dear. 

Harvey Young is an Associate Professor at Northwestern University and a Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. A cultural historian, he is the author of Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory and the Black Body.