Friday, January 18, 2013

On Lance, Liars, and Living in the Post-P.E.D. Era



Lance Armstrong just sat down with Oprah and confessed to a career-spanning conspiracy to take performance enhancing drugs and still pass a gauntlet of mandatory and voluntary drug tests. And since I am a cyclist and a writer, I suppose I am expected to write about it. About how it makes me feel: as a cyclist, as a fan, a human—mainly, about how it makes me mad. And I am angry; I’m mad at PEDs, I’m mad at the decade-long investigation that brought about the truth, and I’m mad at myself. In fact, it seems, I’m mad at everyone and everything except Big Tex himself.


***

Cycling did not make me a fan of Lance—I was a fan long before I started cycling. In fact, I was just twelve years old when he won his first Tour in 1999. At that time, it was pretty dismal for a sports fan in northern Louisiana. It had been three years since the Cowboys had won a playoff game (the start of a historically bad stretch), the Saints were the standard pre-Payton Aints, and the LSU football team, still in the pre-Saban era, went 7-15 in the two seasons that bookended Lance’s first Tour win. Yet, with sports losers all around me, this winner from Texas came forward and won a race that he absolutely was not supposed to win. That was all it took. I don’t think I knew about the cancer, or even what cancer was. All I knew was an American with an attitude was winning against all odds in France. He was General Patton on a bike. I didn’t care anything about cycling, but each July I sat transfixed, watching but not understanding the complex sport, only interested in what color jersey Lance was wearing.

The next year, my aunt—who lived in Austin and was fully wrapped up in the Lance-fueled cycling hysteria—signed us up for a charity ride benefitting the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the precursor to the Livestrong Foundation. It was a grueling challenge for a sixth-grader: twenty-five miles over the hills of Austin in the heat of the summer. Before that day, my longest bike ride was probably two, maybe three miles to the other end of the subdivision. But on Memorial Day in 2000, for the longest two or ten hours of my young life, I was Lance Armstrong, grinding over the climbs and flying down the descents. In finishing that ride, accomplishing the impossible, I proved to myself that maybe nothing was impossible. If Lance could do what he did, and I could finish that ride, who knows what I could accomplish if I put my mind to it.

***

Years later now, when I mull over each new detail in the Armstrong saga, I keep going back to a book discussion in a high school literature class. I was about a novel, though I don’t remember which one. It was about growing up (All the Pretty Horses, maybe?). The novel isn’t important, but what my teacher said about is. She said that the process of growing up is the loss of innocence and the transition from naivety to cynicism, and that while this process occurs over a long period of time, it doesn’t happen at a gradual, constant pace; it’s like Band-Aids being ripped off at random, suddenly and without warning. It didn’t make much sense to me at the time, and I’d forgotten the entire discussion until very recently; but now, in the context of the Armstrong confession, it makes perfect sense.

***

The rumors have been attached to his name for so long now that it’s impossible to discuss Lance without also discussing PEDs. It’s difficult to remember exactly when mainstream America—the non-cycling fans—became aware of the allegations that Armstrong was doping. But what I do remember is that for as long as the rumors have been there, I have been defending him as vehemently as if he were family. At first, it was really easy:

• Those Frenchmen are just pissed that an American is winning their race. Man, those Frenchmen are jerks.

• When someone takes steroids, they get really big, like Barry Bonds. Lance never got big.

Then we learned about EPO, and that it was a PED that didn’t involve giant muscles.

• So what? He never failed a drug test. Open and shut. Close the book. He’s clean.

I even defended him when it turned out that he was maybe kind of a jerk and that he was mean to Sheryl Crow. He could do no wrong in my eyes. Even as more and more details came out, and more and more other cyclists tested positive, and still more testified that Lance had doped, I was still defending him. Even as the evidence for my defense got less concrete and more theoretical:

• The man had cancer y’all. He knows better than to put strange chemicals into his body.

Finally, after the United States Anti-Doping Agency officially charged him of doping, it became:

• Look, I’ll admit that it’s very likely he doped, and if he did it doesn’t change my opinion of him, but I still believe in my heart that he didn’t.

***

As soon as the Oprah interview was announced, everyone knew what it meant. Everyone knew it meant that the confession was coming. As soon as I heard, I started thinking about how it would make me feel and what I would write about it. Am I mad? Am I sad? Am I disappointed?

Turns out: I am sad. A major cornerstone of my worldview has been removed. The worldview that was formed when I finished that Memorial Day bike ride, the idea that I could do anything through determination, just like Lance did. That I could be honest and succeed. That I didn’t need to take shortcuts. That the world would reward honesty and hard work. Over time, life has chipped away at that philosophy. I’ve had to come to terms with difficult truths: I’ll never be a professional golfer and being talented and likeable isn’t enough to succeed. I’ve been kicked by life a few times now, but each time, a part of me went back to Lance, and 1999-2005, and watching him win those Tours, against all odds, and thinking that no matter what difficulties I faced, I could fight through it.

Turns out: I am mad, but not at Lance. I’m mad at myself for being so na├»ve as to believe Lance for so long. It makes me feel dumb—I’m smarter than that. It reminds of the time I realized that my mom’s two tennis friends who lived together and didn’t have husbands weren’t just really good friends. My younger brother had to make that clear to me, when I was nineteen years old—way past old enough to know better. Of the time when my dad told me Santa wasn’t real, and I ran crying to my mom, and she said, “Come on, Hank, you are smart enough to figure that out on your own.” And of the time when I told everyone that my girlfriend was just really good friends with that other guy, even though all my friends were begging me to see the truth.

As I thought about what I would write, I finally realized why I had defended Lance all these years, why it was so important to me that he be clean. In defending Lance, I was clinging to the last bit of my childhood innocence. I have become so cynical, so pessimistic, about so many things, that I didn’t want to lose this one. I needed something to believe in. I needed to believe that Lance had been telling us the truth all along, that he had done it the right way, and through sheer determination managed to dominate a sport full of cheaters. The world was trying, hard, to pull off the last Band-Aid, and I was holding onto it with all I had.

In the wake of this confession, pundits will pontificate at length on Lance Armstrong, PEDs, legacies, and the future of cycling. There will be a lot of angry voices. They will call Lance a fraud, they’ll say he let us down, and they’ll say he’s a disappointment. We know they will say these things because they’ve already said the same things about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. But people weren’t angry at Barry or Roger, just like they aren’t mad at Lance, not really. They’re mad at themselves and they’re mad at PEDs.

Performance enhancing drugs have ripped a Band-Aid off all of us, and there’s a scar under this one. I don’t think sports will ever be the same for me. Sure, I’ll still watch. I’ll still be happy when my team wins and grumpy when they lose. But I doubt I’ll ever put a put an athlete on a pedestal. And when I watch an amazing performance in the future, I don’t think I’ll be able to watch that performance without being at least a little skeptical, without asking, “But did they cheat?”