by Aaron Smale
This last weekend, “The Armstrong Lie,” a documentary concerning the fall of Lance Armstrong due to professional sports doping, came out in theaters.
Those who know me know I hated Lance Armstrong long before it was cool. The doping allegations I could care less about — it was more about his smarmy, self-important attitude as an athlete and a celebrity. Before Armstrong’s battle with cancer, and the subsequent creation of the Livestrong campaign, you’d think that caring about cancer research and bringing attention to the cause just wasn’t in vogue before Lance Armstrong made it so.
What was a little more irritating was the rabid fan base that Armstrong gathered around himself and his “legacy” — people spending hundreds upon thousands of dollars on neon, fashion-savvy spandex for cancer “research,” who thought they were somehow “getting the word out” about the hitherto unknown affliction of cancer.
Now that Lance Armstrong has been found guilty of professional cheating, stripped of all his credibility as an athlete and even made to publicly atone on “Oprah,” his fans and apologists still make the excuse that he did “good work” in the name of calling attention to cancer.
Here are my misgivings about all of that.
For one thing, what does it say about us as a society that we need a celebrity to champion a cause like cancer research before we regard it as a legitimate one? Sure, a celebrity puts a name recognition, brand and considerable resources behind a cause that may not be as visible without them, but too often — as was the case with Lance Armstong — the celebrity allows themselves to become the focal point of the issue, instead of the cause itself being the rallying cry.
The wicked genius of Armstong’s position within the campaign was that Livestrong allowed him to paint himself as altruistic, charitable and — perhaps most importantly — fair. How could a celebrity in such a position truly be guilty of allegations as heinous as doping in professional cycling? Of course, we all saw how that panned out for him.
Another issue that I have is what happens now to people growing up or just entering adulthood who looked to Lance Armstrong as a role model and an inspiration in their own lives. Before he was found guilty of doping, Lance Armstong was an athlete’s athlete — a man who overcame the odds, cancer and people on and off the track itching to take him down, winning seven Tour de France titles in the process.
Not being satisfied with that, he creates the Livestrong campaign to use his considerable fame and fortune to raise awareness about the cause. Following the verdict in his doping trials, however, I can see how a person who idolized him could be in a complicated situation. The question becomes whether it is OK to cheat to maintain celebrity for a good cause (like cancer research), or does it undo that role model’s integrity, as well as the integrity of the cause that they stood behind?
Professional athleticism, when it’s honest, is to be respected and commended. But when one man basically tarnishes a sport through his own actions, no amount of altruism can undo that. If you’re going to play, play fair — not just because you like to win.
Aaron Smale studies English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.