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Gans: Armstrong can still be an inspiration (Aug. 28)

Sam Gans | Monday, August 27, 2012

The recent decision by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to strip Lance Armstrong of his record seven Tour de France titles made waves throughout the country. And deservedly so.

Armstrong was beloved by sports enthusiasts. One of the things sports fans enjoy seeing most is excellence. Even better when it’s an American conquering a sport historically dominated by Europeans.

But of course, Armstrong wasn’t just an inspiration to those who follow sports. He provided hope to those who are in the battle against one of the most horrific diseases on this planet, in addition to raising money and cancer awareness. Here was a guy that had stared death in the face and within three years of diagnosis was the best cyclist in the world. If that could happen, anything could. Anyone – those with cancer, those who survived cancer or those who never had cancer – could use that fighting spirit going through the struggles of life.

Armstrong beat long odds to overcome cancer. He fought through pain to finish on top of the most physically and mentally demanding race in his sport seven years in a row. When the going got tough, Lance Armstrong got going.

But ultimately, Armstrong last week decided to do the one thing in life he had never done.

He quit fighting.

It’s hard to blame the man for stopping his appeals to the USADA, if he actually engaged in blood doping (indications including testimonies and blood samples seem to show he did). Unlike his battle with cancer and Tour de France triumphs, if Lance did cheat, there would be no victory trying to fight in this scenario.

When teams or athletes are stripped of wins or records for breaking the rules for a non-competitive based reason, there is some saving grace. As is the case with many college football sanctions, the cause, while unethical, does not always affect the competition. Reggie Bush’s parents living rent-free for a period of time in a house didn’t contribute at all to USC winning or losing. That does not mean there shouldn’t be punishment, but fans can at least recall seeing those memories and not feel like they were cheated, even though the wins were officially vacated.

But there is no justification fans can use when a direct violation occurs that alters competition, such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs, or in this case, doping. We remember Armstrong’s wins of course, but it feels completely fake.

Even more than that in this particular case, we feel a moral dichotomy tugging at our core. We say we wish Lance didn’t dope, but without it, cancer research would have taken a bit of a hit. As crazy as it may sound, the world would be a worse place if Lance Armstrong stayed clean. And so in some ways, it almost seems okay that he didn’t.

I mentioned above that sports fans love to see greatness. But probably the one thing we love in sports even more than sustained excellence is the group that stops said excellence: the underdog, the team or man that shouldn’t have had a chance to pull through but does. Armstrong, especially toward the beginning of his Tour de France reign, represented that perfectly.

It’s those two things that make this news so difficult for so many. It’s not just that Lance was a renowned sports figure, it’s that he was a man who did great things for a great cause. It’s not just that Lance set cycling records which were vacated, it’s that he shouldn’t have even had the opportunity to set them in the first place.

It’s the peculiarity of it all that is confusing. How should we feel now?

It would be unjust if we didn’t discredit Lance, but why devalue the lessons learned? We can be disappointed in his athletic sin, but thankful for his fight to even commit that transgression. He overcame a frightening obstacle to get back on the bike, even if he did stumble mightily along the way. That – if not the final results of his races – can be appreciated and imitated.

Lance Armstrong’s athletic legacy and integrity are in all likelihood dead. That doesn’t mean Lance Armstrong’s inspiration and message can’t live.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.