Lance Armstrong, seven time winner of the Tour De France bicycle race fell from grace recently, when he failed to contest accusations of taking illegal performance drugs amidst allegations by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The shockwaves that poured through the sports world were loud and harsh, because Armstrong is not merely a sports hero to many. He is known for his remarkable two-wheeling athletic accomplishments from 1999 to 2005, but he is best known and loved for the fact that he did it while battling and surviving cancer. Armstrong is a true inspiration, and he let his fans down.
We see sports fans all of the time, so called heroes on the field and courts, who often do little more than play remarkably well and live fast-paced, often chaotic lives. We call them heroes because many times they offer the kind of inspiration that comes from the depths of poverty and despair, and then a rise to what our society has come to see as success and achievement today.
That is what sets Lance Armstrong apart from many sports heroes. His accomplishments in his sport are nothing short of fascinating, but his fame and renown stem from so much more. His personal story is more than just a sport, more than exceptionally harnessing his natural ability, but it is the triumph in a real battle between life and death; the victories of hope defeating despair. Then he took that hope and built the premier organization The Lance Armstrong Foundation, better known by its nickname, Livestrong – the words emblazoned on the yellow rubber bracelets we have become so familiar with since he began wearing one.
His achievements helped create one of the country's best-known cancer charities. From a small resource for testicular cancer patients, Livestrong now helps people fighting all kinds of cancer, dealing with insurance, mental health matters and the many challenges faced by people and their families as they fight the disease.
This, unlike other athletes’ falls from say, arrests for drugs or drunk driving, spousal abuse, rape, and even illegally betting on their own games, makes Lance Armstrong’s doping accusations so much more painful. He really made a difference in substantial ways. His plunge not only stands to disappoint bicycle enthusiasts and followers of the sport, but it stands to effect the people who he inspired to fight and beat their diseases, not just cancer, but his hope inspires anyone battling debilitating ailments. It also stands to damage the ability of Livestrong to continue serving and leading in the fight for final triumph over cancer.
Through the turmoil and the accusations, much of which Armstrong has so far refused to even comment on, his achievements can still inspire. The sports endorsements have begun to fall and will continue, because they must. If he cheated in the sport - and doping is cheating - sports brands and iconic names that chose Armstrong for his accomplishments as a cyclist cannot associate with him. Brands like Nike, Radio Shack, Anheuser-Busch, Trek and others have dropped him. If the doping is true, then he nullified the deals anyhow. However, Armstrong is as already stated, not merely a sports legend and his achievements with cancer and the millions who have dealt and currently deal with the battles Armstrong is famous for winning.
On October 2, 1996 Armstrong was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer that spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. While surgery and chemotherapy saved his life then, his doctor gave him less than a 40% survival chance. He not only survived, but went on to become a performance machine. Performance drugs in his system or not, his achievement is so much more than many with cancer may be able to attain, and lends significant hope that cancer patients can win and go on to live strong as Armstrong has.
To properly retain his status as a hero on this front, Armstrong needs to stand up and talk. He needs to come clean and explain what happened, or why it is wrong. His silence has lead to assumption becoming certainty to his waiting public. His endorsement deals fell because companies must watch their bottom lines and steer clear of potholes on the path to growth. Individuals have the luxury of waiting it out until the story is clear, and individuals battling disease hope for something to hope for, and can still find that faith in the existential achievements of Armstrong. He just needs to talk to them and let them know that he is still living strong and doing more than surviving.
Let’s face it. Those who battle disease know all too well about drug regimen and the debilitating effects the mere act of survival can have on real quality living. If true, and he did take enhancement drugs, the fact that Armstrong prevailed in the sport as he did, may disappoint healthy fans and fellow cyclist who feel cheated in the competitions they rode in together, but to those in hospital beds, undergoing chemotherapy, drug therapy and surgery just to have a chance to see the sun rise another day, Armstrong is still a hero and someone they hope they too can emulate.
He has a big chance now to make the difference between real success and failure. He needs to address his real fans, and give them renewed hope in their own survival. He can become an angry loner, miserable and mean as he seems to be known for as well and just become a memory of what was once great, or he can turn it around and continue to inspire in the areas where his heroism is indeed rooted.
I hope the latter. I believe he has more to give and the ability to continue pushing people to live strong.
Juda Engelmayer is the co-director of a New York City-based public relations firm.