In 1999, when I was seven years old, I sat down every night in the summer time to watch the latest SportsCenter. I’d usually be trying to make myself stay awake for that midnight’s Baseball Tonight, by far my favorite show. During that summer’s July, something incredible happened. An American, by the name of Lance Armstrong, was doing what was by many considered to be the greatest athletic feat in the world…he was winning the Tour de France.
The Tour is one of three “Grand Tours” in cycling (along with the Vuelta de Espana and the Giro d’Italia) and is widely considered to be the toughest of the three. In 22 days, riders ride across France via 20 stages, two mountain passes and roughly 1700 miles. It is a grueling task, riding on average 125 miles every single day for three weeks. The tour usually has 21 teams, with each team consisting of nine riders. In each team there is a “GC Contender” (General Classification), a “Sprinter,” a “Climber” and “Work Horses.” Each member of the team has an individual responsibility in order to claim victory for the team. “Le Tour” is an individual race with many team components. Armstrong began professional cycling in 1992, and in 1997 was going to be the “GC Contender” for the Cofidis team, before he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and his life went downhill.
Armstrong was dropped from the Cofidis team and lost all health insurance benefits. He fought and fought, eventually beating the cancer that crippled him and emerged about 20 pounds lighter in 1998, ready to battle for a Tour de France. Armstrong signed on to the little known U.S. Postal Service team, and his rise to greatness started.
Armstrong was already an accomplished cyclist before cancer bit him. He had won a world championship and was the leader of a major team. When he emerged cancer free, he was a world superstar. Armstrong would go on to win seven straight Tour de France’s. Nobody had ever won more than five before, let alone seven in a row.
In this column just over one year ago, I wrote about how Armstrong was an inspiration, an American hero, somebody we could point to as a good guy and someone the next generation can look up to. On Thursday, Jan. 17, that all changed.
When I was 7 years old, I had no idea what I was watching, but I knew what I saw. I knew that cancer was bad, and I knew that winning was good. I knew that cheating was bad, but lying was worse. From that point in 1999, to Thursday afternoon, Armstrong was my personal hero. I raised money for his foundation, I never was seen without a Livestrong bracelet, I even painted my room yellow in honor of the inspiration. Last Thursday, my life forever changed.
My hero, my inspiration, was…and is…a fraud. Armstrong has disgraced so many people, people who looked at him for so much more than simply a man who wore yellow. Armstrong was a winner even before he got back on the pedals and “won” seven straight long bike rides. Armstrong won at what mattered most, life. Armstrong did not need to cheat to be in the hearts of millions.
Armstrong did not simply cheat; he lied about it. Armstrong would vilify ANYONE who wouldn’t defend him…and I was one of his loyal foot soldiers. If anyone I knew questioned Lance’s integrity, or asked how he could do this without doping, I would shoot them down and point to Lance’s clean sheet of testing.
Armstrong was tested THOUSANDS of times in his career, not once did he test positive. Armstrong organized a fraud of Bernie Madoff proportions. He did not just lie to a few people, or even to federal investigators. Armstrong lied to the world.
I will still wear my Livestrong bracelet, because I believe in what it stands for. I believe in the power of millions. But I was duped. I do not wear this bracelet simply because I believe cancer should be cured (who doesn’t believe that?) but because it represented a larger message. When Armstrong founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the subsequent Livestrong campaign, I bought into it because I believed that people can come back from a crippling illness to win and to be great. I never expected to feel this way.
Lance Armstrong lied to us. He cheated us. He deceived us. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on you. Armstrong didn’t fool me twice, he fooled me thousands.