Sunday, November 7, 2010

His Sour Grape

Well, there hasn't been any recent news on the Contador front, but that doesn't mean I've forgotten.

Alberto Contador, three-time Tour de France winner, revealed in September that a urine sample he had given during his victorious 2010 race contained minute traces of clenbuterol, a banned performance-enhancing drug. The Spaniard attempted to explain it away as due to food contamination, also pointing out that the amount detected was so miniscule that it could not possibly have aided his results. The World Anti-Doping Agency has rejected this defense, however, saying that it has heard it all before. Contador’s case is further damaged by the revelation that a brand new test found him also positive for plasticizers—almost certainly residue from plastic IV bags, which could have been used for blood transfusions to boost endurance.

Contador has been provisionally suspended by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), although no hearing has been set yet, and his 2010 title presently remains on the record. An official ruling could be a long way off, judging by the doping case of Floyd Landis, who was only finally stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title more than a year after the race had concluded.

While Contador must remain innocent until proven guilty, some would say the damage to cycling’s reputation has already been done. Even if his test results cannot be definitively linked to doping, the mere fact that such evidence has been found casts further suspicion on a sport hammered by drug use over the last decade at least. Far from being surprised by allegations that their champions may be dopers, many people now expect that any Tour de France winner must be on something, the stinging disgrace of Floyd Landis perhaps justifying their cynicism.

Personally, I never followed cycling with any passion, and I really couldn't care less about Contador or Landis, except insofar as their cases add further fuel to the hunt for the alpha, the only truly newsworthy person or topic in the world of cycling. I'm talking, of course, about Lance Armstrong, the big dog himself.

The ever-popular Armstrong, self-described as the most-tested athlete in the world, won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times, never once having been found guilty of doping. But the allegations persisted throughout his period of dominance, and he has been indirectly linked to drug use through guilty associates and teammates, including Landis, who has, in the aftermath of his own admission of misconduct, named Armstrong as a fellow doper. Armstrong remains the focus of an intensifying investigation into cycling that is now being assisted by Jeff Novitzky, who played a key role in the BALCO case that implicated Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, among others.

I’m reluctant to judge the man until an official verdict comes out, but as with Alberto Contador, I must admit that Armstrong’s case practically begins in doubt, and any evidence as has already been gathered tips the odds severely against his being innocent.

What concerns me is the larger repercussions, beyond cycling or even sports in general, that might accompany the ruination of Lance Armstrong. I fear the outcome of this investigation because I know that, even as his sport has been tainted in the eyes of many, Armstrong himself remains a hero to even more people, on account of the things he has done outside of cycling. Just prior to the start of his seven-year reign at the Tour de France, having himself beaten the odds to triumph over testicular cancer, he founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, whose LIVESTRONG movement has supported and inspired millions of cancer sufferers. Already thus recognized as one of the most philanthropic professional athletes in the world, Armstrong also co-founded the Athletes for Hope organization to get other athletes involved with charitable causes. He’s also one of the more active celebrity Twitter users, and his more than 2.5 million followers are proof of his public sway.

What would it mean, in the larger scheme, for Lance Armstrong to be toppled by a doping scandal? What would it mean for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, for LIVESTRONG, for all those who have been inspired by all that he has done? These are the questions that worry me.

I value truth perhaps beyond any other virtue, and I cannot abide cheating. I await justice in the trials of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who continue to tarnish baseball with their flimsy assertions of no wrongdoing. But Armstrong, as a public figure—a hero even for many—means so much more than those men, and it’s very hard for me to reconcile the possibility of his guilt with all the genuine good that he’s done. Personally, if I were to weigh the good against the bad, then I suppose I’d say that raising millions for cancer care and research should outweigh use of a banned substance in the Tour de France, which is, after all, just a sport. But is that to say that his good deeds excuse his (alleged) misconduct, and we’re just supposed to look the other way? That the ends justify the means, in other words (because his cycling career was what made all else possible)? Or, more cynically, that he should be allowed, through good works, to buy the adoration of the public and seven ill-gotten Tour de France titles? That’s a difficult philosophical question that I am woefully unqualified to tackle. But it’s also the issue that the public will have to face, if the reckoning promised by Novitzky comes to pass.

Bonds and Clemens too were heroes of a sort once, as were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Now we know that their era was a shameful period in baseball’s once proud history, their dubious achievements leaving question marks all over the record book of America’s pastime. And the damage extends into today, with active stars such as Alex Rodriguez admitting to having used anabolic steroids in the past, sowing cynicism and doubt as to how much of his career is real versus enhanced. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure, and that constant uncertainty is enough for many, myself included, to dull the pleasure of professional sports.

Men such as these, through their lies, stole from us the innocence to believe in and be inspired by professional athletes. From my perspective, they stole Major League Baseball itself from us, and it is now impossible for me to take the sport seriously. But again, that’s just sports. Lance Armstrong is bigger. I was never a fan of cycling, nor have I ever had cancer, so I’ve never had much reason to follow Armstrong’s name in the news, but even I can appreciate the things he has done for people affected by cancer. I would see the value of it every time I saw a random jogger sporting a yellow LIVESTRONG wristband to raise awareness and support for cancer research, as well as the resolve to live life to its fullest. The idea inspired other charities to produce their own variously colored gel bracelets, and these too would catch my eye as I spotted them everywhere on people who, even if only in a small way, were trying to inspire others as they themselves had been inspired to noble causes. But if Armstrong too was a cheater, then was his message a lie, all this hope that he gave people false? Take Lance Armstrong away from all the good men and women who believe in him, and it could amount to taking hope itself away from them.

Perhaps no sane person should confuse the man with his foundation, for which he may be merely a figurehead and not an active contributor. But I just don’t know. The foundation originated with him, it still bears his name, and Armstrong remains the face to draw people in. However little he may be involved with the day-to-day goings-on (and I honestly have no idea to what extent he is or isn’t), I imagine that, in the public perception, he is the foundation, and there is no separating it from him.

So am I a fool because part of me wants to keep LIVESTRONG going, even if it is rooted in a lie? Is a false hope better than none at all? Before, I would have said no. I would have argued that people are only really living free when they are allowed to make choices informed by the complete truth, blissful ignorance being but an illusion. But I don’t think I ever had to consider the question seriously before now, and suddenly I find myself without answers.

The truth is all well and good, but it can also be devastating. What good came of learning of Tiger Wood’s extracurricular transgressions—cheating of an altogether different sort? Or, moving from sports to the entertainment industry, what about Mel Gibson? Yes, we got the truth, and now that we are able to see these false idols for what they are, we realize what fools we were to have ever followed them in the first place. A valuable lesson learned, no? Yet, as one celebrity role model after another lets us down, soon enough we will stop believing in heroes altogether. Having been stung by these unworthy men for having believed in them more than what they are, we now exchange betrayed hopes for cynicism, believing in nothing and assuming the worst in people. I think that’s a shame. What’s more, I think that within that cynicism lies the true damage inflicted upon society by their exposed lies.

Perhaps we just had unrealistic expectations. Should we really be so disappointed to learn that our beloved celebrities—the figures most prominent in the public eye—are only men after all, as fallible as the rest of us, only their mistakes may well be greater in magnitude, as are the rest of their lives? I suppose we wish for our heroes to be wholly heroic and to never let us down. And yet I don’t see why that is so wrong. Perhaps people believe in Lance Armstrong because they need to, but why is there seemingly no scenario where honesty and inspiration intersect? Don’t people need truth and hope both equally? Don’t people deserve a hero who can deliver both? Personally, I still wish for that.

Of course, no one has caught Armstrong yet. Given all the tests he had to pass, maybe he really was clean through all those victories. I can only continue hoping that he was.

No comments: