What is it about Lance Armstrong that has so many people worked up? I ask this in the context of his sport. Yes, he was the greatest rally cyclist ever (and will remain so, in my opinion, but more about that later), but cycling is hardly among the 10 most popular sports in the world. Wild horses will not be able to drag me before a TV showing the Tour de France. In fact, in a social gathering a few days before the Oprah Winfrey show, people were talking about Armstrong’s upcoming confession, and a friend asked: Who cares?, and was nearly lynched. Apparently, everyone cared, and half of them hadn’t even sat on a cycle with two wheels in their entire lives.
Some sportsmen are bigger than their sports. Why would I, as a seven or eight-year-old sitting in Kolkata, be hero-worshipping Muhammad Ali (at that time Cassius Clay)? And I was hardly alone. Across the world, boys who would never enter a boxing ring, perhaps never watch a full boxing match at any level, idolized Ali. A large majority of them got to hear of the Vietnam war for the first time because Ali refused the draft.
The same goes for someone like Sergei Bubka in pole vault, or Garri Kasparov in chess. I don’t even know all the rules of basketball, and have never found enough interest to watch a full NBA match, but I know Michael Jordan. And I swear I can’t remember—perhaps never even knew—the name of any hurdler other than Edwin Moses.
These men transcend their particular sport either because they are so much better at it than anyone else, or because, in addition to what they do so brilliantly, they bring with them something else that makes them part of a larger life. Ali was such a figure, with his conscientious objection to the Vietnam war (“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10 thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” he said, and more famously, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”) that led to him losing his champion’s title, going to prison, and finally his conversion to Islam. Kasparov, who brought an uncanny touch of genius to his game, remained a rebel through his sterling career, and even today, continues to fight Vladimir Putin as a Russian patriot.
Armstrong’s aura was built, in addition to his matchless career, on his successful fight against testicular cancer and the cancer awareness programmes he has supported and built. He was a bona fide hero by every definition. His books have provided hope and courage to countless cancer victims around the world, and sportspersons of every variety. He was an inspiration. He seemed to epitomize the indomitable human spirit.
Yes, it is now established that through most of his career, he also ran the cleverest and most organized performance-enhancing doping programme in history, or at least since drug tests were introduced in sports. In other words, he cheated. But did he? It is also now established beyond doubt that almost every top rally cyclist was doping. The Tour de France organizers have a huge and embarrassing problem on hand. After they have stripped Armstrong of all his seven titles, they can’t find men to hand over those titles to. In several of those years, the cyclists who came in second, third, fourth, even fifth, have been already been caught and punished for doping! In some sort of perverted irony of fate, doping did not distort the level playing field, doping WAS the level playing field!
Which means Armstrong WAS actually the best cyclist ever. That is why world opinion is so divided on whether to condemn him or not. Many sportsmen across disciplines and from all over the world (including India) have said that their respect for Armstrong has diminished only a little after his confession to Oprah.
It appears as if the generally accepted rules of morals or ethics can’t cope with the curious case of Lance Armstrong. Which may be a wrong state of affairs, but it is a true state of affairs.
And what will happen to Armstrong now? He is, after all, only 41. His corporate sponsors have disappeared, there may even be lawsuits he will have to face. But my prediction is that he will write another book, which will be a monstrous bestseller. Hollywood, I am sure, is already pushing and jostling and offering humongous sums of money to him for the rights to his life story. He will devote himself more to his cancer foundation, and in a year or two, he will make a triumphant return to the world lecture circuit as one of the world’s highest-paid speakers on coping with success and defeat, ethics and the human spirit, and all the other issues that insecure business leaders worry about.
We need not worry for Lance Armstrong. If anything, he has etched his name in public memory and sports history even deeper with his fall from grace, if at all it can be termed that.