The Tour de France concluded recently, though many in this country may not have noticed.
That may have been because the man who got many Americans interested in cycling in the first place was largely a non-factor.
Texas’s Lance Armstrong, a seven-time winner of the Tour, faded to a 23rd place finish after an early surge. At 38, looking weary and defeated, it is all but assured that this is Armstrong’s last Tour de France.
That conclusion has many analyzing and debating Armstrong’s legacy.
A short recap of recent history is in order at this point. In the mid-90s Armstrong was a young, brash kid who had never won anything in cycling and didn’t look to be in the best of shape at times. But that was before testicular cancer had metastasized into 14 tumors throughout his body, including his brain and lungs, giving him a 40% chance of surviving.
But survive he did and, beginning in 1999, he won seven straight Tours, a record.
Along the way Armstrong has been continually dogged by the media, especially in France, who accuse him of doping, despite the fact that Armstrong has been tested over 1,000 times and has not failed a single one.
However, despite the lack of that smoking gun, critics have cited other evidence against Armstrong. Like the fact that he dominated in one of the sports dirtiest eras, when the use of testosterone, EPO, blood doping and other illegal activities creating a series of scandals the likes of which sports have never seen.
Armstrong has also been accused of cheating by several teammates, including disgraced 2006 win Floyd Landis, who recently testified that Armstrong, three teammates, and former coach Johan Bruyneel were involved in an elaborate doping plot.
Federal investigator Jeff Novitzky, who took down BALCO’s Victor Conte along with former track star Marion Jones, is now on Armstrong’s trail, investigating whether U.S. Postal Service funds, the U.S.P.S. sponsored Armstrong’s team during his reign as champion, were used to obtain illegal drugs.
As many people as there are who want to condemn Armstrong, and those legions are growing everyday, there are just as many who are defending him. ESPN’s Rick Reilly recently wrote an article on the network’s website defending Armstrong mostly on the basis that Armstrong has never failed a drug test, along with the fact that Armstrong has raised millions of dollars for cancer research and support through his LiveStrong Foundation. In 2008 alone Armstrong, making a comeback in cycling after taking two years off, finished third in the Tour de France, raising $50 million for the foundation along the way.
Less vocal than Reilly (nor, presumably, as smug and clichéd), are the millions of cancer survivors and their caretakers who have been helped, either directly or indirectly by Armstrong’s very public crusade against cancer.
I am one of them. My fiancée passed the one-year mark as a breast cancer survivor on Tuesday. Last week a tumor lodged deep in her brain, a tumor that was inoperable with a traditional scalpel, was zapped by a precision-guided laser that left surrounding brain tissue undamaged. The procedure took about an hour, and then she was sent home. The next day, she went to work.
Such developments, of which that is just one of many, are also part of Armstrong’s legacy. Because while organizations like the American Cancer Society and the Susan G. Komen Foundation have also been instrumental in the quest for a cure, Armstrong has become the most well known survivor in the country and his influence in many ways is immeasurable. He has traded on his championships to become one of the world’s greatest philanthropists and an inspiration to millions.
And there’s the rub.
If Armstrong cheated to get to the top of his sport, what then? Does that erase all of the good he has done? Would confirmation of gross and elaborate doping cancel out all of the millions of dollars raised and the millions of survivors helped?
The question may be unanswerable, especially if Armstrong is never conclusively proven to be a cheat. This is not someone like Barry Bonds, who used steroids simply for the wealth, the fame, a home run record, and to feed his own enormous ego.
Whatever your answer, determining Lance Armstrong’s legacy will never be easy.