From the beginning, the idea of Lance Armstrong the athlete was inseparable from the perception of him as a man. The 1999 Tour de France crowned a new champion and gave us fresh evidence that raw willpower, pure guts and grit, is enough to win in life. It was not so much that our champion survived a fierce cancer, which was admirable, but that he seemed to defy his own mortality by superior strength of character. With a titanic power of spirit, it seemed, he averted his own death and won the most important stage race there is.
And so, when we watched Lance Armstrong dominate the opening time trial in 1999, when we witnessed him assert his lead and cement his legacy in the Alps, we saw a man waging what appeared to be, for him, another life-and-death battle, and we were rooting for the man as much as we were the athlete. The sneer, the muscles, the grip on the bars—he appeared a prism of unbridled intensity, but more than that, he was indignant. Defiant. He competed like he was possessed, and he was determined to win. It was as if the black-and-white schematic of winning and losing drove him up those mountains as a compulsion, a matter of course.
Win is what he did—more often and more convincingly than any other cyclist in history. He won what is perhaps the most grueling endurance contest ever devised. And he kept winning. There were moments–Hautacam in 2000 and Alpe d’Huez in 2001 come to mind–that he seemed immortal.
Next to this colossal figure, other great athletes were exposed as mere mortals. Jan Ullrich had a classic Ben Jonson problem—he was a fine playwright, and at any other time he would have been the best, but by lousy luck he lived in the age of Shakespeare, who took the gold at every medley in town. When Ullrich looked to his right in the final minutes of the first time trial at the 2005 Tour (his last) only to see the Bard himself making the pass, the slowness that seemed to wash over his body was palpable, and you could feel the sadness and disappointment of coming second place.
Lance Armstrong met sport with the same objective that he met death: win at any cost. The will to win is a powerful human force, but like anything else, it can dement, corrupt, and destroy when unrestrained. And despite what we wanted to believe about Lance, the will to win, and the ability to, says little that’s instructive about character. One can hone the body to perfection while rotting inside.
Even before the dominoes of the peloton collapsed and revealed the dirty truth about cycling—that use of performance-enhancing drugs was de rigueur among the riders, that cheating was the norm—the ideas of the man and the athlete began to decouple as inconvenient realities emerged. There was the infidelity, the interpersonal strife, the bullying and the meanness. But we fought this decoupling for years, because we wanted to believe that Lance Armstrong was, at his core, at least half the man that he was the athlete—we wanted to believe there was something heroic at play, and heroes do not dump their wives on a beach.
We do not demand perfection from our athletic heroes, but we need competency. Lance, too, seemed to intuitively grasp what he should be as a person. There is now considerable irony in what he wrote in his early memoir: “I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends…if I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough.”
When we learned the scope of the lying and cheating, it disaggregated our notion of Lance Armstrong the man and Lance Armstrong the athlete, and it sullied both. That’s the tragedy in the fall of Lance Armstrong—his failures as a man eradicate his achievements as a sportsman.
Long before he won the Tour de France seven times, years before he experimented with endogenous erythropoietin protein, with testosterone, with masking agents, Lance Armstrong was a budding champion with an uncommon capacity to convert oxygen to energy—just a young kid with an exceptional aerobic metabolism. Here was an athlete with a massive engine and enough ego to require victory, who harnessed his physiological gifts to win races, and inspired all of us who watched him succeed.
The many wins of Lance Armstrong are now muted. Still, we cannot let his tragic frailty erase what we know of his greatness–his drive, his courage, his strength. We should strive to remember him not as the polluted villain he became, but as the champion he more often was. In the final analysis, we define ourselves more by our triumphs than our transgressions, but we are harder on our idols. That’s a mistake. Lance Armstrong, for all his faults, remains more good than bad, more winner than loser, more hero than antihero.