Few people have divided the opinions of the cycling world in recent times, and quite possibly ever, as Lance Armstrong has. Where usually a veritable rainbow of opinions emerges, in his case seemingly, there aren’t even 50 shades of grey. It’s black or white, love or hate. Like Marmite.
Yet, while I have a very clear opinion on Marmite (I dislike it), I can’t quite make my mind up about Lance. I sit on the fence. My opinion swings violently between admiration and condemnation. I have a little grey painted spot for him, that sometimes flickers between darker and lighter shades. This situation doesn’t sit easy with me. I like having a clear opinion. Indecisiveness is something I can’t stand.
To help me make my mind up, I watched ‘The Armstrong Lie‘. Originally planned as a piece to chronicle the spectacular comeback of Armstrong, it combines the heroic moments with the revelations of recent times, insights on his charitable work contrasted with the accusations of his old team mates and contemporaries.
The movie paints rather stark pictures, not just of Armstrong, but of the state of cycling at the time. By his own admission, Lance wants to win. Winning is everything, at any cost. For that, he’s had to fight. He describes his whole life as a fight even to the point where he couldn’t help himself stopping from fighting with loved ones. It made me feel sorry for him.
That he has a temper is quite possibly also known, either through accounts of his former team mates who tell stories of being bullied into drug taking and being pressured and blackmailed to keep silent. At one point in the movie, he has a go at people from the anti-doping agency who show up from a number of different agencies in very short succession. Arguably, the agencies are uncoordinated, but that’s the whole point of the system, I thought.
However, he has a personable side. His engagement for charity and the spiritual lift he has given many people fighting cancer is admirable and outstanding. He also seems genuinely interested in reaching out to the community which is exemplified when tweeted that he was in Glasgow and if anyone wanted to come and ride. Lance turned up in a rental car, pulled his bike out the boot and off they went, all 200 of them in possibly the most miserable weather Scotland had to offer. A few of my friends got to chat with him and say he had nothing but encouragement for them. It’s stuff like that that makes you think he’s human after all.
And then there’s the wider picture which, given everything else, is even more disturbing. It’s the sad state cycling was in at the time. There’s a bunch of guys and all they want to do is ride their bikes, ride them well, and win. But in order to do so, they had to dope because everyone else was doing it. It creates a very bizarre scenario where everyone was on drugs, which in a weird way created a level playing field again so that in the end the physically most capable rider won. I find this baffling.
Since his second retirement, Lance wanted to get back into triathlon, a sport he was actually pretty good at before he focussed on cycling. As with everything, there was a mixed reception, from pros and age groupers alike. Some say triathlon needs him to attract the media and give triathlon a broader platform. Others have voiced their opposition. Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack has outright challenged Lance to a private race, since he is now banned from racing any sanctioned events. The discussion rages on.
So where does this leave me and my fence sitting? Lance made one grave mistake, and he admits that, he should’ve never attempted a comeback. Others who have now been found to have been doping have retired when there was time. They led reasonably quiet lives without seeking the limelight, and because of that they have come away relatively unscathed. They’ve come straight out, said ‘Yes, I’ve doped and I’m sorry about that.’, took their ban and returned to their quiet lives. Not so Lance.
Still, I can’t help but admire his charitable engagement and most of all his sporting achievements. Given everyone else was equally doped up, it was the rider with the best physical ability who won the races. An uneasy thought, but there it is.
Would I want him in my sport? Absolutely not. And this is not because of his doping history. Given the number of athletes competing who have been previously banned for doping violations, that would be pure hypocrisy.
It’s because of his behaviour. Because of the bullying. The pressure he applied up to the point where he ruined other people’s lives.
It’s because he lied and lied and lied until there was no other option but to sit down with Oprah and to say ‘Yes, I did it’. I don’t think this kind of behaviour, lies and conscious deceit make for a good role model for aspiring athletes. Or would you teach your children that that was ok for the sake of winning?
I guess the fence sitting is over and Lance is definitely Marmite to me.
Until next time.