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Gans: The undeniable impact of Lance (Feb. 26)

Sam Gans | Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the second in a 12-part series discussing the defining sportsman (or woman) of this century. In this installment, Sam Gans argues for Lance Armstrong. Join the discussion on Twitter by using #DefiningSportsman.

Sports fans love to cheer for the underdog who defies odds to become a champion. They’re also captivated when the big, bad juggernaut crashes down to earth from the mountaintop.

Rare is the athlete who does both.

Lance Armstrong is the defining sportsman of the 21st century partially because of his now-vacated success, but mostly because of his impact, both positive and negative, within and outside athletics. He was a hero to so many and is now a villain. And he is the poster child for what is perhaps the most defining sports story of the century up to this point.

From an athletic standpoint, no one was more dominant than Armstrong from 2001-12. Armstrong earned the title of male Associated Press Athlete of the Year four times, winning the award each year from 2002 through 2005 and tying Tiger Woods for the most since the award’s inception in 1931. And only one of Woods’ four was in this century.

Armstrong won a record seven Tour de France titles from 1999-2005, making the latter five of those wins in the 21st century. Only four other riders have won five Tour de France championships, and just one won all five consecutively. Armstrong’s success was unprecedented.

The fact Armstrong’s success was in the lesser-known sport of cycling might challenge his defining sportsman candidacy. But cycling is one of the most physically and mentally demanding sports on the planet, and though teamwork is important to competition, a rider’s success is primarily individual. In fact, cycling’s obscurity shows precisely why Armstrong is the defining sportsman of the 21st century up to this point.

Ask the casual sports fan to name 20 football players, basketball players or golfers and he or she could do it. But could the casual fan name 10 cyclists? Five? Two?

But Armstrong’s been a household name throughout the century. The fact he was able to achieve this recognition in cycling shows just how dominant he became and how much of an impact he had beyond cycling for the diehard sports fan, the casual sports fan and even those who don’t follow sports.

He transcended athletics and moved into popular culture, providing inspiration to the fictional Peter Lafleur in “Dodgeball” and to millions of real-life Americans – cancer survivors and otherwise – through the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which he founded in 1997 after his diagnosis, treatment and recovery from testicular cancer. The foundation started the famous and widely popular Livestrong wristband campaign in 2004, and the movement has raised tens of millions of dollars for cancer research and victim support.

Of course, that’s all positive news. The problem is Armstrong’s name now invokes much more negative feelings. His dominant athletic success? It is debunked, because his individual accomplishments technically no longer exist after he admitted to cheating through blood doping.

This column is discussing the defining sports individual of the 21st century, but what is the defining overall sports story of this century so far? I’d argue it’s the blatant cheating that has occurred throughout athletics, as players have altered their bodies illegally to improve results. This has been most notable with PED use in baseball and football. But no individual has signified it more than Armstrong through doping.

While his success in athletics and popular culture made him the likely choice for top sportsman of the past 12 years, his shortcomings have in a twisted sense cemented it, because cheating itself has defined sports this century. And no one’s defined cheating and how it can benefit an athlete – and tarnish that athlete’s reputation – more than Armstrong.

Lance Armstrong has been the most accomplished athlete in sports since 2001, one of the biggest sports names throughout the country outside athletics and the prime example of what might be the top story in sports in the past 12 years due to his cheating, which ruined nearly all positive opinions of him.

How could anyone else be a more defining sportsman of the 21st century?

Contact Sam Gans at [email protected]

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.