Thursday, November 1, 2012


What price will you pay for a sliver of hope when in the throes of despair? When you are all alone on an island of doom, separated from the life you lived and loved, by an ocean of anguish and disease, what would you give for a community that embraces you and voices that say “you’re not alone, we understand”? What would you call a Prometheus who steals hope, faith and inspiration from fate and by his very example, gives it all to you, when doctors, friends and family tell you with a shake of the head or an unwept tear that they believe you have none? Why is such a man any less than an angel, complete with a halo and a pair of wings?

So what if the wings were powered by EPO (erythropoietin – a performance enhancing drug) and USADA (US Anti-Ddoping Agency) just clipped them. So what if the once-superman responds to the name Lance Armstrong and is right this moment trying to explain to his kids why they are burning his effigy in England… Isn’t a fallen angel an angel no more?

What’s all the hullabaloo about anyway? Count out Western Europe and the United States and then show me a soul from anywhere else in the world who gives a four letter word about the Tour de France… You’ll be hard pressed to find one.

Ever heard of Miguel Indurain? Do the names of Greg Lemond or Floyd Landis, Jan Ulrich or Marco Pantani ring any bells? My guess is you haven’t got the faintest idea. But, what of a certain Lance Armstrong? Heard of him? Sure you have… you’re probably wearing a yellow LIVESTRONG band on your wrist right now, or perhaps tut-tuting with friends about how Lance let you down. But aren’t we all missing the woods for the trees here. To most of us, the fact that Lance Armstrong has been a seven-time Tour champion is only the sub-text. To us, he had been a greater hero for trouncing cancer and coming back from the dead (he was given only a 40% chance of surviving his race against cancer) and then emerging a champion. And yet, we didn’t wear the LIVESTRONG band and celebrate the Livestrong movement (the Lance Armstrong Foundation or Livestrong Foundation has been support on all fronts to cancer patients and research organizations for the last 15 years. The world can’t have enough of such foundations) because we wished him greater victories in the races around the world. After all how many of us can name a cycling race other than the Tour de France? No, we wore the band because we identified with his cause… Because he was fighting a disease we dread; because the millions and millions of dollars he was raising for cancer research could one day help us, or someone we love, wrestle this nemesis of mankind into submission and remission; because there are people all over the world who have found comfort and support through his organization during their lonely and often expensive battle with their own bodies, and yes, admittedly also because Lance Armstrong didn’t just survive, he won, and don’t we all love a winner.

But he is no winner at all! He is a ‘cheat’, you’d say… and I say you’re wrong. Doping - the illegal use of performance enhancing drugs - has been a part of the Tour’s underground culture ever since the first edition in 1903 when many riders admitted to using ether and alcohol to dull the pain through the grueling ride up the mountains. Why, even the legendary Eddy Merckx faced a ban for doping. And all through the Armstrong years, his strongest rivals, Marco Pantani, Ivan Basso and Jan Ulrich, have all been convicted of doping offences and have faced bans or suspensions. No wonder Armstrong’s titles haven’t been awarded to anybody else. In fact, apart from Spanish rider Fernando Escartin in 1999, who finished third behind Lance and tainted Swiss rider Alex Zulle, almost every cyclist who finished on the podium behind Armstrong is a proven or accused drug-cheat. No wonder, the UCI (International Cycling Union) hasn’t awarded the vacant titles to another rider yet. In fact, it is hard to find even one rider in the top 10 at the Tour de France during the decade of 2000, who hasn’t been accused of doping.

And what about those who followed in his wake? Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour champion was stripped of his title when found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs and even Alberto Contador, the 2007 champion has faced suspensions for doping.

It really isn’t a question of who is clean and who is tainted on the Tour but more a case of who gets caught and who doesn’t. I’m not defending Armstrong for having used drugs to gain an unfair advantage. I’m just saying that it was his way of leveling the playing field, and even his worst critics would agree that during that decade, it was impossible for a rider to win if he wasn’t on a sophisticated doping programme.

If Lance indeed did take drugs, then sure take away his halo and strip him of his titles if you must, but you can’t just dismiss his sporting credentials. If he was a champion cheat, it only proves that he beat the cheats at their own game. But beyond all that, we cannot destroy the legacy of Lance Armstrong the humanitarian just becomes his achievements are in a sport that is still confused about how to keep the system clean and whose method of doling out punishment is so arbitrary that some tainted riders still have their titles, a few suspensions and bans notwithstanding, while others are shamed and stripped with a vengeance.

Today, Armstrong the cyclist, even with his seven titles intact can’t hold a candle to Lance the humanitarian and cancer fighter. The former just doesn’t matter and nor is he half as relevant as the latter. To shun and shame and attempt to destroy the Livestrong movement just because cycling’s governing body suddenly suffered a bout of wakeful action is worse than throwing the baby out with the bath water. The Livestrong band is a symbol of solidarity in our fight against cancer, and it’s a symbol that has been instrumental in raising millions for a cause. There was no cheating there. There was no lie there. So stop tearing that down and if you took it off in shame, put it back on… the world still needs Livestrong.

As for Lance, is it right to punish a man for buying an unlicensed gun to protect himself in a lawless and violent society? Maybe it is, if you say so, but I can’t seem to share your conviction.

I say we forgive the cyclist his sins, but let us still continue to celebrate the man and support the movement. We owe him that. We owe every cancer patient that...


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