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Lance Armstrong: A Lost Action Hero

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What do you call a man who overcomes cancer to become a sports icon? When I used to think about Lance Armstrong, the word “hero” always came to mind. Winning seven Tour de France titles (getting even one is an amazing accomplishment) after beating a disease that is a worse villain than most antagonists in films and literature, Lance stood for believing in the underdog, the guy who could overcome anything. He was an action hero to be sure, a guy any kid or adult could look up to for his talent and nobility.

Alas, this is not a story with a happy ending. As in most tragedies, the central hero has a flaw, one that subsumes all his courage, ability, and accomplishments. Achilles had his heel; Hamlet his procrastination, but Lance had something else entirely: he had a desire to win and put everything else beneath that in order to succeed. His decision to stop fighting the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency brings to an end the myth; Armstrong is stripped of his seven titles, he loses his Olympic medal, and is banned for life from participating as an athlete or owner (he’s currently part owner of the Radio Shack cycling team).

Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the USADA, said, “It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes.” Let’s credit Tygart with hitting the nail on the head. People everywhere are rightly hanging there heads, and this devastating but inevitable outcome is like seeing Hamlet dead on the floor at the end of the play, knowing how great he was and could have been if not for the tragic flaw that brought him to his end.

This has been a hard year in sports. We can list the names: Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, and now Armstrong. All the asterisks, all the stripped titles, all the lost medals and public disgrace aside, there is absolutely no redemption to be had here. All sports lovers and the legitimate players suffer under the shadow of what these people have done. Now, each time there is a phenomenal accomplishment, such as the amazing Ye Shiwen, the Chinese swimmer accused of cheating at this year’s Olympics, there will always be doubts. Did he? Did she? This casts a dark cloud over all sports now and for a long time to come.

Why is hit so hard for us to accept that there are no heroes anymore? It is an essential thing in our psyche to want our heroes to be bigger than life. The greatest heroes in literature and film, think Ivanhoe or Sinbad or even Rambo and Harry Callahan, make us want them to succeed because they defy all odds, rise above the rest of us somehow, and defeat the forces of evil. But now the hero seems to become lost, even Batman and Spider Man have morphed into dark versions of themselves, unable to be heroic as they once were, because the world has changed and the game along with it. It is harder to tell the protagonist from the antagonist and, sometimes, we are not sure who is who anymore.

Lance Armstrong was once the greatest of stories in sports. He fought hard against an ugly opponent, fought just as hard against the terrain in France and won it all. We were there with him, rooting for the American who conquered the impossibly difficult French course again and again. To make us admire him even more, he created a charity, Livestrong, to help those with cancer, and that was a wonderful thing and raised millions of dollars. Now it’s all gone: the honor, the glory, and the legend. Lance Armstrong has given up the fight against the USADA, and we all feel defeated because he is a lost action hero.

In the film Die Hard the evil terrorist Hans Gruber tells trapped New York cop John McClane that this time Grace Kelly doesn’t walk off into the sunset with John Wayne. McClane corrects him and tells him “Gary Cooper,” but maybe Gruber was on to something happening to American culture. Of course, in the end McClane wins in the movie, but this is no film. This is real life and the hero doesn’t walk off into the sunset; Armstrong slinks off stage defeated and destroyed.

It has been a hard year in American sports. Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” The problem is not just that Joltin’ Joe has gone away, but so have those of his ilk whom we could admire, and there is no one to replace them. Sadly, I do not know when we can regain our confidence in sports figures or if we ever will. And, as Armstrong finally accepts his fate (and perhaps the legal action that will follow him), we can only hang our heads in shame because of him and the other American sports figures who cheated or have done wrong. We have fallen so very far into a dark abyss, and we are left to wonder when we will ever see the light again.


Photo Credits: Armstrong-biography.com; Ye Shiwen-guardian.uk.co

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana's stories, articles, and poems have been published in literary magazines and online. His books 'A Death in Prague' (2002), 'Move' (2003), 'The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories' (2005), and 'Like a Passing Shadow' (2009) are available in print, online, and as e-books. His latest books 'If the Fates Allow: New York Christmas Stories,' 'Garden of Ghosts,' and 'Flashes in the Pan' are available exclusively on Amazon. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated on writing mostly fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as a faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with 'Blogcritics Magazine' since July 2005 and has written well over 500 articles; previously co-head sports editor, he now is a Culture and Society editor. Having traveled extensively, Victor has visited six continents and intends to get to Antarctica someday where he figures a few ideas for new stories await him.
  • Igor

    It seems that ‘heroes’ always leave a lot of wreckage in their wakes.

    It’s a mistake to have heroes. They’re just humans, after all. Leave them alone. It’s a weakness and lack of introspection and understanding to need caricatures like ‘heroes’ outside of oneself. Cherish your own achievements, humble as they may seem. It doesn’t require someone outside oneself to validate a sense of accomplishment.

    Why saddle someone else with the responsibility for your sense of well-being? It’s a mad scheme.

  • Charlie Doherty

    Igor, Marion Jones never tested positive for PEDS either. So it doesn’t mean anything that Lance never failed a drug test. These top athletes know how to get around drug tests (or know people who can help them beat the system. ) That’s what BALCO/Greg Anderson was doing for years (helping athletes like Jones and star or average MLB players beat the system).

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Yes, they should demand that he have his day in court…and then they can hang him.

  • Igor

    If the USADAs evidence is good then they can present it in public without Armstrong. But if they were counting on getting him sworn in and confronting him some way, then they have no intrinsic case.

    Perhaps Armstrong figured this all out and simply cut off their chance to grill him, thus leaving the USADA with nothing but their flimsy gossip testimony.

    So nothing is accomplished. Titles taken away from Armstrong will be given to 2nd place finishers who may have been bigger dopers than Armstrong ever was. Is that justice? Does it make any sense?

    It was folly to keep digging up old charges going back to the 90s to harass the guy. At some point you have to move on.

  • Zingzing

    Yeah, I’m betting that Armstrong knows they have the evidence and he’s trying to save face. But they still should present it if they’re going to fuck their sport’s biggest star of the past 15 years.

  • they were willing to give him his day in court but he gave up instead of taking it. I don’t know if he’s innocent or guilty, but am curious about the evidence, which they have to show now to have any credibility, or they would surely find themselves at the end of a lawsuit or two.

  • zingzing

    el b, i’m not sure that “everyone” thinks armstrong is innocent. it’s just that the usada didn’t bother to give him his day in court before proclaiming him guilty and stripping his wins. even if he doesn’t want to fight it, i think they should present the evidence, prove him guilty, then ban his cheating ass and make him give back all the medals. he’s probably guilty. but he should be caught and proven so before they punish him.

  • Not sure why everyone is so quick to believe Lance before they’ve seen the evidence that the USADA claims they have. How long did Pete Rose claim he didn’t bet on baseball before finally fessing up?

  • zingzing

    although it wouldn’t surprise me if armstrong had been doping, it also wouldn’t surprise me that his rival cyclists, even teammates (armstrong is supposedly a bit of an asshole), would stoop to accusing armstrong for their own benefit. he’s a giant in the cycling world, especially in the rather small american cycling world, and they lived in his shadow.

    cycling, as a sport, is not doing itself any favors these days.

  • I tend to agree.

    There’s a lot of testimony out there from athletes who’ve been accused of doping that it’s very much a case of guilty until proven innocent.

    As Igor points out, Armstrong has never failed a drug test either in or out of competition. Whether he’s been successfully cheating all these years or not, I think he’s realized that the USADA had already made up its mind that he was a bad ‘un and there wasn’t anything he could have done to exonerate himself in their eyes.

    It’s a shame that the world’s media seems to have bought into this and has promptly accepted Armstrong’s disgrace without question, case unheard.

  • Igor

    All this proves is that even the most stout person will tire of constant harassment.

    In other drug cases the personal testimony of team-mates and competitors has proven unreliable.

    Armstrong has an abrasive personality so he probably enemies, especially among failed competitors, such as Landis. I remember that when Armstrong was young he was constantly battling with team managers for top position. Some of those team managers were the old-fashioned Europeans who treated riders like horses for their personal use abuse and entertainment. Armstrong was never cut out to be a ‘domestique’, subordinate to others.

    Armstrong has never had a positive drug test, AFAIK, although he’s been tested more than anyone, and bicycling is the most intensively tested sport. IMO the intense drug testing started in (ca.) 1956 when Tom Simpson died of a cardiac event at the top of a long hill, and it was blamed on ‘speed’. But testing then was poor, as were autopsies. More recent analysis has cast considerable doubt on the original judgement that drugs contributed to Simpsons death.

    From Armstrongs viewpoint this is a fight he doesn’t have to continue. He’s made a bunch of money, won a bunch of races, indulged celebrity sex, etc., he can retire wherever he likes and tell the world to f*ck itself. Hell, he even fought cancer and won!

  • Charlie Doherty

    *I meant, “getting caught doping in RECENT years.”

  • Charlie Doherty

    Actually Dr Dreadful, with top cyclists like Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton getting caught doping in racing years, the theory is more like, if everyone else was doping, so was Armstrong. He seems to think he (like Roger CLemens in MLB) can convince the public he wasn’t like so many of his other (cheating) peers, but the “totality” of evidence over the years (especially confidants and eyewitnesses seeing him taking EPO) that the USDA has seems credible enough to me to make him as guilty as Landis and others he raced with during his era. And his does greatly take away from his achievements. It’s great that he came back from cancer to race, and that’s a great achievement itself that no one can take away from him, but how he was winning those races is a different story.

  • Thanks for the comments. You know, if everyone is cheating then is it still cheating is a provocative question. I guess if the others don’t get caught then they are considered not cheating; however, if it could be proven that everyone in the race had been taking something, then Armstrong should be vindicated, thought that’s unlikey to happen.

  • The decision to strip Armstrong of his Tour de France titles isn’t actually the USADA’s to make. The Tour has taken a wait-and-see position, and as far as I know they haven’t yet made a move. One can understand their reluctance because it will be incredibly damaging to the image of the race.

    Frankly, from what I’ve heard of professional cycling in the Armstrong era, if he was doping then so was everyone else. The playing field being level, one could argue that even if he was doping it doesn’t detract from his achievement.

  • Charlie Doherty

    I have a sick feeling you’ll have to update this article in the next month or two with at least one or two more big or somewhat big name idiots who tried to cheat and get away with it. Nice job on this!

  • Alberto legstrong

    well done sir, this was linked to from cyclingnews forum usada vs armstrong thread