When I lived in Austin in the summer of 2000 I remember watching Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France, his second of seven, against Jan Ullrich. The entire city was rabid about the Tour and about Lance, because he was their favorite son. The rivalry against Ullrich was a great rivalry and would last for another six years, with a hiccup in 2002 when the big German was suspended for taking a banned substance. During that time, the US Postal team was an icon of teamwork, speed, and power. Images of the blue juggernaut were ubiquitous in homes and offices.
I have been a fan of a smattering of baseball players, the occasional basketball player, and a few elite rowers. If there was any larger than life sports figure I was an uber-fan of, it was Lance Armstrong. I admired his approach and I liked that he was a brash, domineering Texas a-hole in competition. At his height, he was a killer on the bike and he made his rivals look like bad.
For nearly a decade Lance owned cycling and it felt good to be an American sports fan when he won. It gave us something to root for during the dog days of summer, during the stretch before football started.
And then there’s the nearly $500 million he helped raise for cancer research through the Lance Armstrong Foundation and Livestrong. Viewed outside of sport, Armstrong was a marketing and business freight train. There was a lot to be admired about one of the best athletes on Earth in the 2000s.
Lance affected my life in other ways. His training and race strategy revolutionized how cyclists approached the Tour de France. I read Chris Carmichael’s book The Ultimate Ride and used it as a blueprint for developing my own training strategies early in my career as a rowing coach. At the time, training in cycling was well ahead of the curve compared to rowing, so I would mine articles on Lance and related books for kernels of knowledge, looking for an edge I could bring to my own sport. In my first years as a head coach, I photocopied an entire chapter on nutrition and sports physiology from a Lance book and passed it out to every athlete on my teams. I used Lance as a example during lecture sessions. I had a copy of It’s Not About The Bike on my desk. He helped make modern training methods cool and accessible. Lance himself was cool.
Somewhere in there I became aware from listening to other cycling afiocionados and reading articles that Lance and company were probably doping. This awareness happened around the last of Armstrong’s Tour wins, perhaps 2004 or 2005. Of course they were doping. Despite the excellence in training, it’s simply impossible to dominate an event as rigorous as the Tour without some kind of help. I’ll be perfectly honest. I didn’t care if he was doping or not. I reasoned everyone was doing it and the good Lance was doing for cancer research outweighed the bad. I figured, just don’t get caught, and if you do get caught, take responsibility for your transgressions.
But he didn’t do that, and in the process of systemizing his cheating and piling on the lies, Lance bullied and otherwise screwed up other peoples lives. I read this article on cnn.com about how Lance turned against former friends Frankie and Betsy Andreu and accused personal assistant Emma O’Reilly of being an “alcoholic prostitute” when she disclosed information about doping. He purposefully destroyed relationships and made life harder for other good people to keep himself at the top.
The question of remaining a Lance fan has plagued me the last week, as I’m sure it’s affected many other sports fan. Do I remain an admirer because of the good or denounce him because of the bad? There are so many facets to the story, it’s hard to keep track of everything. The story is further complicated by the fact that Lance has never officially failed a doping test.
When I stripped everything away from the Lance Armstrong story, it became easy for me to decide where I stood. Lance Armstrong is an monumental asshole and the worst kind of winner. He traded away integrity and honor for wins, celebrity, and self-enrichment. He chose to destroy relationships rather than improve them. He sued regular people because they dared to tell the truth. His cabal had people blackballed from the sport, and thus their livelihoods, for not drinking the Kool-Aid.
What I learned at Kokoro 25 is that when a Warrior is stripped of absolutely everything, down to the core, if you retain your honor and integrity and your relationships with your fellow humans, than you still have everything. You are a giant. Your relationships are everything in life and to purposefully destroy relationships is destroying yourself. The measuring stick of the value of our lives are our relationships.
Lance is in the middle of losing everything. It’s my hope that through the process he becomes humble and seeks to repair his relationships. It’s my hope he spends the next forty years of his life living with honor and integrity and learning to be a good winner. I’d like him to find his Warrior Spirit.
I don’t want to end this post by saying I’m now a Lance Armstrong hater. That doesn’t mean much. While I mulled this post it was useful for me to compare Armstrong to two recent Americans in the news, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, the former Navy Seals who fought ferociously and gave their lives during the Benghazi terrorist attacks in order to save lives. The more I read about them, the more certain I am that their deeds are among the most heroic of all time, certainly that I’ve aware of. They had no material obligation to enter the fray, being independent contractors and not part of the security detail, but they still answered the call and rushed into the breach. Their obligation was about honoring their relationships and honoring their Warrior Spirit. That’s what men of integrity do when the call comes. These are the types of heros we should admire, not cyclists and basketball players and professional athletes.
Honor your relationships. Everyday.
I saw this quote a couple of different places when researching this post:
Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. … Sing your death song and die like a hero going home. — Tecumseh
- Remembering A Hero
- Woods’ Sacrifice Honored at OHCS Assembly
- The Noble Lie
- Lance Armstrong’s Endgame