It was in high school that I first heard the name Lance Armstrong. It was an evening news bulletin on Doordarshan and towards the end of it appeared a short report on Armstrong who had sealed yet another Tour de France title. Cycling was just a pastime for me in those days. The sport, I didn’t know or care much about. However, the name settled firmly in my memory. A major reason for remembering the name being another Armstrong (Neil) who happened to be the first ever man to walk on the moon.
As year after year, newspapers and news channels wrote and spoke profusely about the legend of this personality who after fighting against cancer, what turned out to be his biggest and perilous battle, conquered what is considered to be the most physically gruelling sports event. Struck with curiosity, I began to research to know more about this ‘superhuman’ which eventually led me to this autobiography that was borrowed from a friend of mine who happened to be a big Armstrong fan.
‘It`s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life’ gave an account of the formative years, the fight against cancer and a stunning comeback against all odds to win the 1999 edition of Tour de France by Lance Armstrong.
The whole journey was bound to cast a spell upon anyone who happened to come across the book - cycling fan or not. It was a glimmering example and a living embodiment of the human spirit of refusing to quit till the last drop of sweat had fallen. That Armstrong defied cancer was an achievement in itself.
Not to forget is the fact that he made cycling more appealing and ‘cool’ with his extraordinary achievements.
As he scaled Alpine slopes, his legend grew and a foundation (Livestrong) he found to help those battling from cancer saw overwhelming response as it raised millions of dollars in its “fight to improve the lives of people affected by cancer.”
He was the ultimate personality – entertainer, survivor and a hope to millions across the globe.
All came to a stop after it was revealed that the muffled voices that were met with utter disdain when they questioned the legitimacy of Armstrong’s success were, in fact, true.
It’s not the first time that cycling has been at the centre of doping allegations. It was just a year before (1998) Armstrong won his first of the seven Tour de France titles that cycling was recovering from a major scandal known as “Festina Affair”.
His arrival and subsequent domination of the sport helped in wiping away the bitter memories. He sported the ‘clean image’ with so much pride that when targeted of using performance enhancing drugs, he turned furious rebutting every claim that branded him a cheat. What raised initial doubts was the fact that he kept winning even when almost everyone around him was caught cheating.
The revelations have been startling but not new. However, it is nothing short of a disappointment for those who regarded him as their hero and this is not just because he was a cancer survivor. What he achieved while pedalling and scaling numerous mountains made him a legend transcending sporting boundaries. He was a character that would have inspired athletes and teams competing locally or on the international stage.
Such is his persona that even now it is hard to believe what the sport’s apex bodies are alleging against the 41-year-old whose cycling record has been wiped clean. The opinions are divided. There are those who are still standing with him pledging their support in the face of any challenge and then there are those who want to make an example out of him.
The predicament is, does it take precedence over the fact that Armstrong had the courage to stage a comeback after living with the fact that he had less than 40% survival chance? He might have manipulated his way to success and that has sullied his image to a vast extent, but could it be so ‘damning’ that we forget his work to lend a helping hand to cancer patients and their families. This might well become his biggest achievement after all that has come about.
The answer lies with Armstrong himself. If what the US Anti-Doping Agency has in its possession as evidences is true, then it befits and won’t cause any further harm to his image to accept the wrongdoings and apologise. Even though, it will be hard to not think of him as a tainted sportsperson but through his foundation he can and should continue to do what brought him to the level of an inspirational figure.
Cancer was something that wasn’t his doing but still he fought and overcame it. Doping, on the other hand, was a deliberate attempt to rob others a fair chance of competition. Going by his now tattered reputation (as a sportsperson), it will take something of an epic proportion to dwarf what he along with his teammates indulged in during their cycling career.