Imagine if you will, dear reader, that Armstrong stepped off his bike early in 1998, having successfully recovered from his cancer and returned to pro bike racing, and announced his retirement. Mission accomplished. No Vuelta that year, and certainly no Tour wins from 1999 to 2005. Imagine that he instead turned to establishing his cancer foundation, which did not become the ubiquitous yellow-armband wielding entity it became with his Tour fame but a smaller, no less dedicated, institution focusing on men’s health. Perhaps he returned to triathlon, competing successfully and winning several high-profile events. As a result, the profile of triathlons was boosted and Trek abandoned its road bike line (keeping LeMond on instead) to focus on the growth of the sport. Road cycling remained a strictly continental endeavour, still a mystery to most North Americans, and with doping scandal after doping scandal involving dodgy Spanish and Italian doctors, and mysterious Austrian clinics, it stayed as a fringe sport for Euro wannabees. For those not buying into triathlons, cyclocross started to emerge from the remnants of mountain biking and frustrated hipster roadies who wanted a new sport they could make their own. That one single individual could have such a dramatic impact on the direction of sport in North America does not seem an entirely absurd proposition.
Doping at the Tour would have carried on without Armstrong. One might say that he encouraged others to try to keep up, that his programme was the most advanced, that the UCI resisted reform because of his boosting of the sport. Maybe. But until there was a change in the culture of the peloton, and a willingness at the highest levels of the sport to address doping, it would have carried on. 1998 was simply not enough to break the cycle, even though it was a start. Bonnie D. Ford perceptively wrote the following, as the revelations about Armstrong were coming out from USADA: “And there will always be people who loved those three-week travelogues every July and don’t want to give up on their longtime protagonist, either. Sunflowers and lavender and Alpine switchbacks are far more appealing images than syringes and blood bags and a cult of personality channelled into coercion. Armstrong’s legacy lies now not only in the eye of the beholder but in the willingness of that beholder to take off the blinders and see.” It is hard not to conclude that we all care less about the actual cheating than we might think. The Tour is a majestic spectacle, a carnival of suffering, a rock show. It has its own twisted and artificial values. It is just a bike race. Which is why Armstrong’s lifetime ban is punitive and excessive; it cuts off forever his ability to earn money as an athlete. One strike and you are out. Forever.
As argued in The Armstrong Lie, this story is not about bike racing, it is about power. As political scientist Joseph Nye notes, there are three types of power: coercion, payment, and attraction/influence. Armstrong amassed and exercised all three types. It is not so much the cheating that we should object to but the exercise of power, particularly the coercion and the money used to maintain ‘the lie’ – the impact of which should not be minimized. If there should be punishment, then this is what should be dealt with. How Armstrong atones for the exercise of his power, as he has been doing over the last months, will determine his legacy. As for attraction and influence, if we worshipped him as a hero we only have ourselves to blame. There are no heroes in sport – only those with talent and the single-mindedness to apply it, which is not heroic. Some have argued that Livestrong was a ‘cover’ for Armstrong, that the foundation was not as effective as it could have been, that it was all just marketing. But that ignores the very real presence that it plays in the anti-cancer scene, all controversy aside (its flaws perhaps those of any start-up in the business), and the work that Armstrong put into it. Ultimately, then, how we think about Armstrong will always be reflected through this prism – now and in the future.
Looking back at the Armstrong 2.0 book, where this series started, it is hard not to see it as marketing material, but more than that a manifesto, a political campaign for the re-election of Armstrong as global icon. Like anything with politics, power was at its heart, for good and bad. But then like any political campaign there was scandal, and ultimately we have all voted and decided not to re-elect the candidate. But the story is not over and there will likely be a new campaign in the future – Armstrong 3.0 – even if we do not know what it will be for. The campaigning has already started.
In thinking about this story, one expected that insights might appear spontaneously: a eureka moment of clarity as to what it all means and meant. But then fame, adulation, and success as well as fraud, corrupting power, falls from grace, hubris and redemption are nothing new – human nature writ large in the internet age where we are all players in the drama, interconnected even if our only experience of the saga was standing on the side of the road or sporting a yellow wristband. Our proclamations are as valid as any; our contributions to the discussion more than just background noise. We flatter ourselves that we matter, that it all matters. That somehow out of it all can come meaning. “We can’t live in a state of perpetual doubt, so we make up the best story possible and we live as if the story were true,” says Daniel Kahneman. What is your Armstrong story; what does it all mean to you?