Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. The stripping-off of the title, by the International Cycling Union followed, as it accepted the findings of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into systematic doping, allegedly carried out by Armstrong and his team, during his cycling years.
You could have told me, when I was younger, that Superman did not exist at all, or even that earth was flat and I would have taken it with a pinch of salt, accepting it nevertheless. But the sports fan in yours truly gets hurt – extremely so – if you tell him that all of Lance Armstrong’s success on the most gruelling of cycling surfaces were a result of deceitful, organized, and preposterous ‘cheating’ program ever seen in sports history.
It is a story unpalatable, baffling, jaw-dropping… Suddenly, someone whom you made into a hero, someone you admired – even worshipped – for superhuman capabilities, someone you put on a pedestal, has come down with a thud, a deafening thud. For us mortals – who love reiterating the story immortalizing greats – no other story can be unnerving. No other ‘fall from grace’ story could affect you as much as this one has. After all, not many success stories moved you, as much as Lance Armstrong ‘Tour de France’ titles did. ‘Livestrong’ – an advocacy and support campaign for the cancer patients did not become a buzzword just like that. It was an exemplary leadership for humane cause for millions, shown by an athlete, who had suffered the hardships of cancer himself.
Not many fairytales get you inspired as much as his story did. A man, who was trying to push his way to the podium finish in early 1990s, gets diagnosed with stage three (advanced) testicular cancer – in 1996 – the disease having spread to lungs, abdomen and brain. After surgery, doctors say he has 40 percent chance of survival, as he has developed brain tumors too. Following surgery and intense chemotherapy, he is declared cancer free by early 1997. By the start of next year, he begins serious cycling training. Next year, he wins his first Tour de France title, and doesn’t let anyone come close to the trophy for next six years. Too good to be true? Surreal? Maybe…
All the stars of cycling looked like ‘also-rans’, when Lance was cycling. Through those years, it wasn’t about who wins Tour de France, but who would finish runner-up to Lance, and how close. Highly inspiring, Superman-like? Indeed, even the most fantastic of fairy tales do not have such ‘they-lived-happily-ever-after’ endings. Except that, in this story, the ‘ever-after’ was not too long. All the success got deleted some 7 years later.
And the reason: Doping. In the words of US Anti-Doping Agency, it was “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”, run by a “serial cheat” through “the use, administration and trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs and methods”. Period… Apparently, as the report clarifies, Armstrong was not a helpless pawn forced by others to cheat. He was the instigator, the ring-leader and the designer of whole cheat episode.
All the titles stripped off, and sponsors who paid millions of dollars to his team, wanting it back, Armstrong cuts a sorry figure now. Millions of his fans – especially the likes of yours truly, who were into early adulthood during his years of dominance – are questioning themselves: Why? Why did we make him into a cult figure? Why did we trust his incredible story?
The news of his titles being withdrawn came as Nepalis were celebrating Bijaya Dashami – the festival marking victory of good over evil. Very few were glued to the story, learning of how the evil – even if temporarily – defeats the good. The feeling was same for his fans, across the globe: Were we wrong in worshipping Lance?
According to Armstrong’s book, he asked Scott A. Shapiro – the doctor who performed his brain surgery – “Why should you be the person who operates on my head?” The noble doctor replied, “Because, as good as you are at cycling”, adding: “I’m a lot better at brain surgery”.
Doctors are not the ones to repent their decision of saving lives. But in this case, who knows?
(PS: This write-up appeared in Yours Truly’s weekly column at The Kathmandu Post – OFFSIDE – on 27th October, 2012)