Lance Armstrong finally “surrendered” yesterday, ending a decade's worth of denials that he had used performance-enhancing drugs.
But is “surrendering" really what he was doing? To me, it looks more like a declaration of victory -- a statement that he is bigger than Jeff Novitzky (the Eliot Ness of sports doping), bigger than the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, bigger even than the sport of cycling itself.
And he's right.
No longer will he have to spend so much time huddling with his lawyers, searching for loopholes and cooking up non-denial denials about never testing positive or never experiencing a suspicious spike in performance. "There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, `Enough is enough,'" Armstrong said. "For me, that time is now."
Armstrong surely knew that the doping case was getting harder to beat. The forces arrayed against him were closing in. Former teammates and acquaintances were lining up to testify. The evidence was growing that he had covered up positive test results from both before and after his comeback.
Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the USADA, wasted no time turning Armstrong’s statement into a morality tale. "It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes,” he said. “This is a heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture of sport, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe and honest competition."
That’s not what it looks like to me. Yes, there’s every reason to believe that Armstrong is guilty, and he would have done a far greater service to his legacy if he had actually come clean. But let’s be realistic. Competitive cyclists have been doping in one form or another -- cocaine, strychnine and amphetamines, to name just a few of the scores of illegal substances ingested to help riders pedal faster, longer -- since the sport’s birth in the 19th century.
Among other things, Armstrong will be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, much as Penn State’s Nittany Lions lost 111 victories. But toward what end? And, for that matter, if we are going to get into the business of erasing history, why isn’t Major League Baseball at least talking about stripping away victories from the Giants and A’s, who are arguably both in the pennant race because of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs?
Armstrong cheated in a sport where cheating is the norm. This is not an excuse. It is a fact. Including Armstrong, six of the last seven riders who finished first at the Tour de France have been linked to doping. Thirty-six of the 70 top-10 finishers in Armstrong’s seven Tour victories have admitted involvements with PEDs. How far down the list of finishers will the International Cycling Union have to go in order to find their new “winners”? And will they really feel like “winners”?
Whatever you think of him and his athletic achievements, there’s no arguing with what Armstrong has accomplished as a cancer survivor and philanthropist, inspiring untold millions of people and raising some half a billion dollars for cancer research and treatment in poor communities.
He is telling us now that this will be his focus going forward. “I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities," he said yesterday.
A carefully crafted P.R. statement intended to help launch the rehabilitation of his image? No doubt. And it’s not as though he can return to cycling; he’s now been banned from the sport for life. At the same time, his record of dedication to fighting cancer speaks for itself. In this context, it’s hard not to notice what cause his fellow disgraced Texas sports icon, Roger Clemens, has chosen to devote himself to: A Major League comeback at the age of 50. Armstrong’s ambitions for his own legacy are a bit loftier.
There’s no question that Armstrong’s decision to stop fighting is a tacit admission of guilt. So what? If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that the sports world, like the real world, is filled with compromised heroes. Maybe we’re finally at a place where we’re ready to accept this. Certainly, Armstrong -- who can legitimately claim to be much more than an athlete -- is the right person to test the hypothesis.
Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.
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