LANCE ARMSTRONG’S decision not to defend the case taken against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) places him at the forefront of a notorious cadre of cyclists who have created an indelible link between their sport and drug cheating. The edifice of denial and bravado so carefully constructed and scrupulously maintained in response to repeated allegations of cheating has crumbled.
Armstrong may have defeated the drug-testing system but, ultimately it seems, he calculated – however reluctantly – that he cannot beat the word of more than ten eye witnesses, including formerly complicit team mates, who the USADA said were willing to testify against him. Notwithstanding his continuing denials, accusations of “an unconstitutional witch hunt” and issues over jurisdiction, that is the only credible conclusion to be drawn from his decision to end the fight with the drugs agency.
At best, from Armstrong’s perspective, he has avoided the ignominy of a process that could have removed whatever ambiguity continued to exist about his sporting exploits, especially if it involved public hearings. Yet his assertion that “there comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say ‘enough is enough” is simply implausible. This is a man who famously battled cancer and went on to dominate cycling with seven victories in what is among the toughest of all sports events, the Tour de France.
As a sport, cycling will be anxious to present the Armstrong case and those linked to it as a throwback to the bleak years when doping abounded. And at the highest level, the sport is cleaner now. This was essential if it was to retain its corporate sponsors and its huge television audience. But it remains damaged, a reality compounded by the enduring presence of key figures associated with the doping culture. There are unanswered questions too about how the testing regime did not identify Armstrong as a cheat.
So what is Armstrong’s legacy? And what now for his Livestrong foundation which has raised millions of dollars for cancer research and to support those with the disease? Here there is room for genuine ambiguity. His story is made up of two parts: the champion cyclist and the man who successfully battled cancer. That the first is so deeply damaged should not destroy the second. Armstrong’s recovery from the disease – as chronicled in his autobiography It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life – is one of the most life-affirming stories ever told. In this context, he retains the capacity to inspire.