Calculating Infinity: Lance Armstrong Doping Edition

By John Gorman

I want so badly to be outraged. I do.

I want so badly to be surprised, to be shocked, to be stunned. I want to sit here tonight with my head in my hands, half-drunk scotch over half-melted rocks on my desk. I want to sit here, shaken and suckered, aghast at another fallen sports angel, perhaps the most unholy fall of all.

But I’m not. And, frankly, I’m not even bothered by it.

When Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999, I was just able to drive and not yet able to vote. I’d spent most of my childhood on a bike, outrunning the demons in my broken home, climbing hills and staking out rural pathways to happiness and dreaming of one day cycling competitively in the Pyrenees.

Lance Armstrong, the first American to win the Tour in a decade, also happened to beat cancer in superhuman fashion. Cancer. I barely even knew what that was at that point, but I knew it was terrifying and deadly.

Lance was someone worth celebrating, worth rallying behind, worth looking up to and admiring and idolizing. He did something historic, heroic and human all at the same time. And then he kept doing it: over and over again.

It was at that time I got older. I grew up. I grew wise (allegedly). Knowledge of steroids, or the cute little acronym, PEDs, began to permeate my mind. I began to delineate the types of and reasons for use, and easily discern who was on vs. who was off. Mark McGwire, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens. All my heroes from halcyon days gone by. All revealed as ‘cheaters.’ None of it bugging me all that much.

Lance Armstrong won seven … SEVEN … Tour de Frances. Not in a career … in a row. After beating cancer! Of course he was next. Of course he was doping. My only befuddlement arose from how he’d never been caught.

In a sport that’s as crooked as a bent tire climbing a switchback, a sport where everyone seemed to get busted for various doping offenses in the years before and years since, to presume that somehow the very best athlete in an era littered with dopers, users and abusers that he somehow stood clean and pristine above all sounds more than naive. It sounds like more than blindness. It sounds like an outright absence of reason.

But he did so much for charity, was the defense, as if somehow the one credit to his character voided all deleterious activity. People, wake up. Good people do bad things, bad people do good things, and in fact, the longer I live, the more I realize neither good nor bad people truly exist – only folks who make choices based on resources, options, values and costs. Often, these decisions are made with imperfect information, clouded judgment and compromised ethics.

Lance Armstrong is another one of those humans. And Lance, staring death in the face, knew how human he was. Lance, standing on top of that podium in yellow, knew how superhuman he could be. And Lance, staring at the delta between mortality and morality, immortality and immunity, took the path he deemed most appropriate.

I don’t fault him for it. I don’t fault Barry Bonds for taking steroids. I don’t fault anyone trying to gain an advantage by attempting to engineer themselves to be physically superior to others wishing to do the same. I don’t find the act romantic or reprehensible, right or wrong. I find it a means to an end, another complex wrinkle in an exponentially myriad series of choices athletes are either allowed or forced to make for the betterment of themselves or their sports.

But I’m older now. I’ll be 30 soon. And for at least my 20’s I was certain Lance Armstrong was doping. For at least the last five years I’d heard rumblings that he was a prickly man, someone who belied some people and stonewalled others. I believe he’s probably someone who worked his ass off, someone who looked for the edge and decried those who whispered just a bit too loudly that he had help. Help he should’ve never had.

Spare me the “Won’t Someone Think of the Children” argument. It’s tired. It’s played out. Lance Armstrong was doping while I was one of those ‘children.’ I rode my bike just like him, up hills, down streets and from town to town. I never once saw him and thought, “I know how I could ride even faster. I wonder where I could score some testosterone or some plasma-rich platelets.” I never once equated LIVESTRONG with LIVEWRONG. I never passed judgment either way. It just didn’t matter.

I’m old enough now where I realize judgment of a man, as what we’re likely going to do tomorrow when we’ve had a chance to digest this and try and put some context into it (we won’t be able to, as name the last seven-time champion in anything to have their championships taken from them), as impossible. People can’t be categorized, or even listed as ‘conflicted’ or ‘complex.’ No, there’s too much nuance for that.

Lance Armstrong is human. He’s a man who beat cancer, raised billions of dollars and incredible awareness for it, took performance-enhancing drugs, lied about it, won the most prestigious race in his sport seven times in a row, retired early, came back, married Sheryl Crow, inspired some, drew the scorn of others, and was ultimately had his village burnt down by myriad investigations by various sport governing bodies.

I don’t think he’s a great guy. I don’t think he’s a hero. Heroes don’t exist anymore. Not with our wisdom and our so-much-closer-to-perfect access to so-much-closer-to-perfect information which we can use to peel back the many discordant layers of personalities at our discretion.

But I also don’t think he’s a villain. For what? Putting some stuff in his system that theoretically doesn’t belong there? Is this our world now? To find complexity in the cut-and-dry? To find cut-and-dry in complexity? To squeeze the blood of evil from the stone of good? To highlight the lowlights of this world? Aren’t we all culpable not just in the tearing down of the Lance Armstrong Fortress of Cancer-Fighting Invincibility, but culpable in creating the very bubble which buttressed his image? Aren’t we just undoing our own life’s work as well as his?

Does the presence of new information change reality? Or just our perception of it? Do our values dictate our actions? Or do our actions dictate our values? Is life a function of how we react, or of how we control how the world reacts to us? So much discord, so much dissent, it’s a wonder we can even stop our heads from spinning, much less look at the spinning wheels of Lance’s bike and just appreciate them for what they are: Spinning wheels that for a time spun faster than anyone else’s, ever.

There’s a lot of questions to be raised. Not about Lance Armstrong, or the future of cycling, or even the sports culture – but about what produces the myths and facts that form the foundation of all those things. And all those questions can be succinctly summed up in just two, about as well as anything we try to understand anymore can be succinct:

Can we reconcile? And does it make any damn difference if we do?

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