It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the world of sports. Last Sunday Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian BASE jumper previously little-known beyond extreme sports enthusiasts, fell to Earth from the edge of space and became, to some at least, a hero.
And Lance Armstrong, the man who was a hero to so many in the worlds of cycling and cancer survival, fell even further. He tumbled from grace as his tarnished legacy fragmented in his wake. The fallout of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) report has been beyond catastrophic for Armstrong.
First the announcement he was stepping down from his post as chairman of Livestrong, the cancer-fighting charity to which he has given so much of himself and given cancer patients so much to hope for. Then the revelation his sponsors were abandoning him, an initial trickle that turned into a rush in the other direction of Armstrong’s sinking ship. Then, on Monday, a cutting blow when the International Cycling Union (UCI) stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories.
From Nike, the most telling moment wasn’t their damning statement that Armstrong had “misled” the sports apparel company for more than a decade, it was the announcement that Trek, the American bicycle company that sponsored Armstrong, was “disappointed” and was terminating their long-standing relationship. A cyclist without a bike, he is now abandoned at the most fundamental level.
With each day, it gets worse. The UCI confirmed it was accepting the USADA report, banned Armstrong for life and declared the Tour de France would have no winner in the years from 1999 to 2005. UCI president Pat McQuaid declared Armstrong “deserved to be forgotten.”
Texas insurance company SCA Promotions is pursuing Armstrong for the return of $11 million in bonus payments and Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said he expects Armstrong to return the prize money he won for his seven stripped titles.
As falls from grace go, it’s pretty spectacular. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a drug-using cheat and a liar, however. Armstrong made his choices, and now that the truth is out and so seemingly unequivocal, he has no option but to live with the consequences.
As a cyclist, my biggest concern isn’t — and never was — Armstrong himself, but what the fallout means for the future of the sport. Of all the consequences of this sorry affair, the one that may have the greatest repercussions is Rabobank’s decision to pull sponsorship from its Dutch cycling team.
Of course any business has the right to remove itself from sponsoring a sport it perceives as tarnished beyond repair, but their decision also highlights the greatest risk of the current situation: that other sponsors will follow suit and today’s clean young cyclists will end up paying for the choices of an earlier generation.
Has doping been completely eradicated from the sport? Clearly not. Positive results from this year’s Tour tell us this. But there’s no question it’s a cleaner, better sport than it was. We have the example of David Brailsford’s Team Sky. They are prepared to do whatever they must to ensure their riders are clean. There are ways to take a stand against the ugliness of cycling’s past without putting its future in jeopardy.
Ultimately, I disagree with the UCI statement that Armstrong “should be forgotten.” He needs to be remembered, but not as a reason to condemn cycling itself. He should be remembered by every cyclist tempted by a needle, a vial, a pill. It might lift you up to a podium, or two, or seven; but when you fall, this is how hard and fast and painfully you’ll come crashing back down.
Kay Cahill is a cyclist, librarian and outdoor enthusiast who believes that bikes are for life, not just for commuting. Read more at sidecut.ca, or contact Kay at firstname.lastname@example.org.