It’s a word we throw around often in the context of sports. Jayson Werth and his plus-sized contract. Alex Rodriguez, riding the pine and scoring digits from bikini models. Guys who didn’t come close to living up to their hype or their salaries, like Chris Webber during his stint with the Sixers. Now, in a fraud class of his own, is Lance Armstrong.
The 41-year-old has a starring role in a 1,000-page report that has not only shattered his image as the lone clean cyclist in his sport, but depicted him as a “serial cheat,” the centerpiece of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” It’s quite a different narrative than the one we’re used to regarding this real-life superman. Stories have surfaced of reporters who questioned Armstrong’s anti-drug pledge and were blacklisted or dressed down, often by Armstrong himself. This week brought an even greater indignity, as Nike and Anheuser-Busch cut ties with him, and Armstrong stepped down as chairman of his charity, Livestrong. These days, a celebrity scandal isn’t real until the endorsement money dries up and charities—even your own—want nothing to do with you.
There’s a long history of performance-enhancing drug users and con men in athletics, but Armstrong’s crossover appeal is unparalleled. Like Tiger Woods, he drew audiences to his sport in staggering numbers. Unlike Woods, Armstrong’s name became synonymous with something noble, far beyond competition. As a cancer survivor, Armstrong was a source of inspiration for his Livestrong charity—a supernatural force who beat all the PED junkies en route to a record seven Tour de France titles and the Reaper. Some might say that when you place his accomplishments on the scale of life, the $470 million and counting that Livestrong has raised for cancer survivors far outweighs cheating in a few bicycle races.
I can see why folks would think that way. Anything involving the “c” word carries a unique and mighty weight. My mother is a cancer survivor. If you don’t have a family member or friend who’s battled the disease, then you should be playing the lottery. Remove cancer from Armstrong’s legacy, though, and what you have is simply the story of a con artist. Armstrong became an icon not just because of those yellow jerseys, and certainly not because this country has a passion for pro cycling. It’s because he swore, a thousand times over in interviews, that he was clean. Armstrong parlayed his image into untold fitness magazine covers and gushing profiles and built Livestrong into something far bigger than a 501(c). Think back to all of the rubber wristbands you’ve seen on everyone from Matt Damon to teenagers to three-piece-suited CEOs. Livestrong became a cause and a rallying cry. But consider the color of those rubber bracelets—an obvious nod to Armstrong’s cycling dominance. By Armstrong’s own design, there’s no way to separate the wristbands, the brand, the sport and the man.
As the news of his resignation from Livestrong broke, it reminded me of The Second Mile, another charity that suffered a major public relations crisis in the wake of a scandal. To be clear, Jerry Sandusky is to Armstrong what Osama bin Laden is to a dollar-store shoplifter. But on a fundamental level, both men had noble charities that will suffer for their sins. They manipulated their image for personal gain, and they let down the many people who trusted them. In Armstrong’s case, the ends don’t justify the means. Think of all the other cancer charities that could have been funded with the money he raised, thanks largely to a lie he told daily, for years, to anyone who’d ask. In the end, Armstrong’s greatest sin was the betrayal of the faith that so many cancer survivors—and victims—placed in him. His fall from grace is also a reminder that heroism is a casualty of the information age, as we learn, more now than ever before, that our idols are flawed and all too human.