Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because for two decades now I’ve had serious questions about the wisdom and fairness of the “anti-doping” effort, which consists of criminalizing and demonizing athletes for what boils down to using medications without a prescription, as if they are heroin dealers. And I’m confused as to why using cortisone as an anti-inflammatory in a 2,000-mile race is cheating, and I wonder why putting your own blood back into your body is the crime of the century. And because there are offenses in sport that seem far, far worse to me. Like say, putting rapists on your college football team.
Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because I believe the athlete in him is a situational personality — a facet, not the whole — and I’m just as glad not to compete against that side of him, the one that invented a game called “fireball” when he was a teenager that consisted of soaking tennis balls in kerosene, lighting them on fire, and playing catch with them. “Let me give you a piece of advice,” his wife Kristin once said. “Don’t corner him. If you corner him, he’ll fight his way out.” Whose makeup seems to me Phaedra-like, drawn by two horses pulling in opposite directions. “I have loved him every minute of his life,” his mother once declared, “but God, there were times when it was a struggle.”
Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because I’ve never believed there was a more innocent sporting past, and I am not one of those people, unlike his prosecutors, who get nervous and angry when great athletes are too far removed from my own image of myself. And 25 years of writing about champions has convinced me that they are indeed, very, very different from you and me, and their qualities are often dark. And because “It’s Not About the Bike” tried to state that quite clearly.
Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because I don’t understand those people who are bitterly angry to discover that he is not Santa Claus, while ignoring the very real and useful presents he delivered. Not toys, not hagiography, but the simple yet critical lesson that a third medical opinion can save your life. Or that the more educated a sick person is about their disease, the greater their statistical chance of survival. Who not only preached those lessons, but built an organization through which anyone can get the information and education about cancer for free that he was fortunate enough to be able to afford. And who put his money and incalculable amounts of time where his mouth was, raising $500 million for research and donating $7 million of his own fortune.
Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because the guy I know lost his head to celebrity and ego at times, but he always, always kept his head on straight about cancer. “You don’t beat it,” he said. “You get very lucky and survive it. I don’t want anyone to think I beat cancer because I’m special.” And because I never once saw him too tired to engage with a cancer sufferer, or too vain to pull out his driver’s license and show the picture of himself bald, with no eyebrows, and two half moon scars in his scalp from brain surgery to remove tumors.
Or because he once said this, and I got to be the person who wrote it down and deliver it to others: “If children have the ability to ignore all odds and percentages, then maybe we can all learn from them. When you think about it, what other choice is there but to hope? We have two options, medically and emotionally: give up, or Fight Like Hell.”
Let me make something clear: I don’t just like Lance Armstrong for that. I love him for it.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.