What if our opinion of the Lance Armstrong story has more to do with our own moral development than it does with his?
Lance Armstrong likely abused performance enhancing substances. If you stop there, the story seems pretty black and white; no ethical dilemma with which to wrestle, no grey. This is where some people have stayed in their thinking about Lance Armstrong. He is a cheater, he is bad, I would never do that, I am good, justice is served, cheaters never win- case closed, the end. The problem is, this is not the whole story, not even close.
The Two Lances
There are two very distinct Lance Armstrongs. If we cannot recognize this distinction, we are in trouble because we may find ourselves on the wrong side of morality. There is Lance the great and controversial athlete. The straw-man sports hero that we erected to such great heights, just so we can rip him down with indignation, righteousness and a little entertainment too. We like to do such things in America- just ask the criminal Lindsay Lohan or the crazy Brittney Spears or the fat Jessica Simpson. We like to build heroes and stars in America because it serves a dark side of human nature to watch them fall. But Lance did cheat, I won’t deny this and I am not making excuses for it. In context, he cheated in a sport where EVERYONE cheated at that time and we have a historical bias now looking back in time. Why did we go after just Lance so many years later? Chances are it is because, despite all of his terribly human flaws, Lance did make himself into a greater Lance: the Lance of Livestrong, the cancer advocate, the man who foresaw his place in history and had a vision for real and positive change in the world. Ironically, it is likely because of his success as a cancer advocate and subsequent celebrity that he has been hunted by WADA so many years later. Lance the athlete cheated-just like all his peers and in a sport that almost required it- but he cheated nonetheless. Strip him of his titles, no arguments about this from me (although it is hard to know how far down on the Tour results one has to get to find a clean athlete, if there even was one at that time, not sure who should get those titles now…but whatever). The thing is- that is the small Lance, the mortal Lance, the fallible and probably selfish Lance (just like all of us!). The bigger Lance outgrew the shadow of himself when he starting focusing on becoming the single most influential cancer advocate in history.
The Greater Lance, the Lance of Today
What do I mean by the greater Lance? The Lance of today? I can only explain it tangentially but hopefully the message translates. The day before the 2010 New York City Triathlon, I went up to my college roommate’s funeral in Connecticut. She was 26 years old and passed away from tongue cancer. She had been a great collegiate runner and was in medical school at the time of her diagnosis. I have never been in awe of anyone as much as I was of her after her diagnosis. She always had faith, hope and projected a spirit of love (not anger- how could this be?), despite what she knew, and she knew. After her death, her fiancé would wear a shirt around everywhere that said, “KME FOREVER LIVES ON” (KME were her initials.) He had gotten the shirt from Livestrong and there are pictures of him all of the country in this shirt on Facebook; it seems as though he almost didn’t take the shirt off for months after her passing. To see those pictures of that shirt meant something to us who knew her. Something maybe more eternal and more noble than bringing the Lance of Livestrong to “justice.”
When my mom was sick with cancer in 2008, she lived with me while receiving her chemotherapy treatments. Whenever we got home after a treatment, she would perseverate on how difficult and inspiring it was for her to see the 18 and 19 year old men in the infusion center getting their treatments for testicular cancer. (Don’t forget Lance was one of these young men too!) That helped her through those torturous treatments; even after all her weakness and misfortune, she was still inspired by these young patients. And many of these young patients identify with Lance Armstrong as a source of hope and encouragement. What does this have to do with Livestong? A lot. Lance and Livestrong have made cancer advocacy sexy and cool and trendy and successful in the United States. And if you forget about the power of the Livestrong brand and what it stands for, you forget about the hope and encouragement of a lot of cancer patients and their families and friends. Sure, you have justice. But if that justice comes at the harm and destruction of the Lance Armstrong foundation and the Livestrong brand, what have we done? Sure- we have acted on principle and legalism; but have we behaved with a moral spirit, with compassion for others even if we haven’t experienced cancer personally, with room for humanism?
Cancer Advocacy is important. I can give a lot of examples here but one topical one is the problem of drug shortages afflicting the institution of US healthcare. Many of these drugs are cancer drugs. For instance, we just experienced a nation-wide shortage of Methotrexate. Methotrexate treats certain types of childhood leukemia. Children, who would have LIVED otherwise, have died THIS year in THIS country because of methotrexate drug shortages. There are a lot of complicated reasons for these drug shortages: outdated FDA regulations, poor manufacturing practices, the failure of free markets to provide functional healthcare, ect. However, cancer advocacy is really the only thing that will address any of these problems. If people don’t care, things don’t change, lawmakers don’t pay attention, nothing changes, these problems remain silent and deadly. People have to care. Livestrong has made cancer advocacy a culturally desirable practice. The Livestrong brand is so sexy that the trendiest sports brand on the planet, Nike, had to partner with them. Keeping cancer advocacy cool and popular is in the best interest of patients. It is the right thing to promote and the wrong thing to destroy, even at the cost of having a little grace for Lance, the flawed human.
Evaluate your ethics
If you are disappointed, frustrated and angry at the Lance of 10 years ago, the small Lance, the Lance who was just a mere athlete and fallible as all hell, I don’t blame you. The whole sport of cycling has been a disappointment. However, if you can’t appreciate that there are two Lances in this story and are currently outspoken against a bigger and more contemporary Lance who, for the past several years has truly devoted himself to cancer advocacy, and you are outspoken against the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Livestrong and the company partners who also promote cancer advocacy- I ask you to be very thoughtful about your position and its impact in the lives of real patients. I am not sure you are on the “right” and “moral” side of anything. The world of sport and cycling and triathlon is a very small one and means very little to patients facing their mortality and their families and friends. These people don’t need Lance to have 7 Tour de France titles. But they do need advocacy. There has never been one foundation or one man who has done more for the public face of cancer advocacy than the Lance Armstrong Foundation and Lance himself. If you “throw out the baby with the bathwater” here and can’t see the bigger picture- then your opinion about Lance might say more about your own moral compass than his. This week the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults and REV3 Triathlon announced that Lance will be racing in the cancer survivor wave of the Half Full Triathlon, a race where 100% of the proceeds benefit the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults (a significant act of servanthood by REV3 as well). Lance is not racing in a professional field for money here, he is racing in the cancer survivor wave. He is racing to promote the Ulman Cancer Fund and continue his work as the most influential cancer advocate in history. I am proud of Ulman, Lance and REV3 for doing a good work for a bigger world than just triathlon. I would ask anyone who cannot get behind this cause to reflect upon the implication of their opinion- if not for others, than for themselves.