My almost 12-year old son was one of Lance Armstrong's biggest fans from the age of about four. He would invite the neighbourhood kids to join him in the "Tour de Whatever-Street-We-Lived-On-At-The-Time" and spend entire summers wanting to wear nothing else but his collection of yellow t-shirts - his own mini version of the maillot jaune. We introduced him to cycling (or rather, I did) because since the 80's, I've watched the Tour every year. Every stage, every broadcast minute even before Lance was involved. My brother used to race and most of our family became fans of the sport as a result. That was back in the days of Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond and Steven Roche.
I've always found competitive cycling intriguing, in part because it's just so tough, but also because of its many unwritten rules around honour, ethics and sportsmanship that make it different from most others: the yellow jersey is never attacked on the last day; the yellow jersey is never attacked if he has fallen or had a mechanical problem; if two riders are vying for a stage win and one of those riders will be in the yellow jersey after the stage, he generally gives up the stage win to the other rider...the list is quite long. And fascinating for such a competitive sport.
My interest has waned in recent years
because rampant doping is making it tough for me to believe in the sport
at all anymore. I became skeptical of Lance's innocence a few years ago when almost all his rivals and former teammates were being caught doping. Yet still, last April we stood on the Champs-Élysées in
Paris and tried to imagine what it would be like to be there in July,
bikes whizzing by on the cobblestone street, taking in the excitement
of the final day of the world's toughest sporting event.
Like a lot of people, I was firmly planted in front of the TV last night watching Lance Armstrong admit that he used performance-enhancing drugs to help him win seven consecutive Tours de France. Part of me didn't even want to watch. Didn't want to give him even one more second of my mind time, given the huge disappointment he has proven himself to be. I'll admit I wanted to see him squirm a bit. Wanted him to be in the uncomfortable position in which he had placed so may before him. But because his confession only came after he was caught, that made it a whole lot less satisfying.
Beyond the admission of cheating, there's a much bigger story here and it's one we should all pay attention to whether we are disgusted by Lance's actions or willing to turn the other cheek. The simple truth is that this story is about bullying. We're all shocked when children bully. When groups of teenagers gang up on another young person for no reason other than to make themselves feel superior. But somehow, this decade-long story of adult bullying and mental torture can be explained away because Lance Armstrong was a "winner" and just doing whatever was necessary to continue winning. Or even worse, because he hid behind the shield of cancer and so, made himself untouchable.
Far beyond his lies, his former teammates and employees say he coerced, threatened and destroyed the personal and professional reputations and lives of those who were supposed to be his friends and supporters. Some even claim to have received death threats over the phone. How in the world can we be OK with that and yet tell our children that bullying is always wrong and should never be tolerated?
Comparisons between Lance and Tiger Woods, Martha Stewart, Roger Clemens...the list is long....aren't valid, in my opinion because there's a huge difference between those falls from grace and Lance's. Only Lance created a culture of intimidation and threats around his lie. He brought others into his circle of lies to create a society that couldn't rat each other out without threat of personal loss to every member. When an incredulous Oprah asked Lance, "So you sued all those people when you knew they were telling the truth. What IS that????" she finally got to the crux of this story.
Without the intimidation, I really believe Lance Armstrong would have been forgiven eventually. Just like Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton before him. They were all found guilty of cheating. But none of them tried to destroy the lives and livelihoods of others who dared to "out" their truths. In this story, they are the bullied ones and that's why we have compassion for them, even though they were as guilty as Lance was of the original cheating. Had Lance not carried his cheating to an all-out vendetta against anyone who would challenge him and/or his lie, I wouldn't even be writing this post.
While reading through my Twitter feed last night, I was shocked by the number of people who still don't see that. Who still think what he did was acceptable because in elite sports, "everyone lies...everyone cheats". That a win is a win as long as it's played on a level playing field with other cheaters. Really? Are we truly OK with a society that's so jaded about cheating that we don't even see the sin in it anymore? And even worse....that blindness leads us away from realizing the underlying bullying problem at the heart of this mess?
I have to believe it's because those people don't really understand the sport of competitive cycling or they aren't familiar with this story in its entirety - so they think this is just another simple cheating story. If I don't believe that, I'm left with the understanding that no one really cares about bullying after all. That it's never going to stop. So instead, I will hold up Betsy Andreu as THE example of standing up to a bully no matter the cost. She did what we all tell our children to do. The right thing. She has true integrity - doing what's right even when it's hard. And if we don't celebrate that, then what do we have left in our crusade against childhood bullying?
Last night, my son watched the first five minutes of Oprah's interview and heard his fallen hero answer "yes" to the first few questions about doping before heading to bed. This morning he told me he's "disappointed". We've discussed talking to him about the dangers of idolatry and turning celebrity athletes into heroes. But at the same time, I don't want to crush his childhood fantasies about one day crossing the finish line on the Champs-Élysées, or scoring a game-winning goal in the NHL or discovering the secrets of the universe with his telescope. He has the rest of his life to deal with reality. Now is the time for heroes and dreams. I think we just need to be sure the heroes we choose display the values we treasure. That's why Betsy Andreu will be mine.