Armstrong Gives Us Hope Against Dope

Lance Armstrong has won the Tour de France six straight times, but his biggest victory, so far, has been his successful battle against cancer.
Lance Armstrong has won the Tour de France six straight times, but his biggest victory, so far, has been his successful battle against cancer. (Thierry Roge - Reuters)
By Tony Kornheiser
Thursday, April 7, 2005

Once again Lance Armstrong stands accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. This time, a former (and fired) employee who says he found steroids in Armstrong's medicine cabinet is blowing the whistle to tell the world what a cheater and liar Armstrong is.

Once again the accuser's story is fishy, as Armstrong's accusers' stories have routinely seemed fishy before. This fellow seems like he's been jilted. Armstrong, he claims, promised to employ him extensively as a member of Armstrong's racing team, and then buy him a bike shop. Now they are engaged in lawsuits and countersuits.

It's curious that we are always quick to jump to Armstrong's side whenever someone accuses him of using illegal drugs. A lot quicker than we are to jump to Barry Bonds's side, or Mark McGwire's. A lot quicker than we were to jump to Marion Jones's side, even though she never had a positive drug test, or to the side of anyone in the NFL. It's as if we've signed on as volunteers in Armstrong's defense team, as if we'd all be crushed if Armstrong were uncovered as a fraud. Somehow Armstrong means that much to us.

What's so special about Armstrong? Why him and not McGwire, Bonds, Jones and other fabulous champions who have thrilled us with their remarkable accomplishments? What coats Armstrong with Teflon? What gives Armstrong this iconic status and accounts for millions of people wearing those plastic yellow "Live Strong" bracelets that identify them as part of the Lance Armstrong Mythology?

Well, some of it is the fact that he wins at an exotic, gentrified race that most of us don't care about, and therefore don't examine the way we do baseball and football, and even Olympic sprinting. It's the fact that he goes over there and beats them . That gives Armstrong the mythic stature of a conqueror -- and that's fine with us as long as we're conquering for truth, justice and the American Way. Some of it is the fact that he's best in the rugged mountain climbs, where it's all about guts and will. (Because really, what else do we know about bicycle racing? Most of us get on bicycles for fun. If we want to actually go somewhere, we hop in the car. Modern America was built on cars, silly.) And some of it is the fact that he seems built so much more like the guy next door than the behemoths who slam huge homers or thunder down the track.

But mostly what's so special about Armstrong is the cancer.

He beat the cancer. The doctors said he was going to die. And he didn't. He lived. He got stronger. Because that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. It has made him so strong that he's won this cockamamie bike race six years in a row, this race that seems to stand for so much to so many people outside our borders. And, of course, it kills the French that he does it. So hooray for Lance.

The reason we cheer so much for Lance Armstrong is that it seems that Armstrong's victories always come the hard way. Against cancer. In the mountains. It's like he's always pedaling uphill. And we cling even more tightly to Armstrong because we've had to give up on so many other big-time athletes: Everyone believes baseball players take steroids; now tests show it's rampant in the minors. Even before this Carolina Panthers story, everyone suspected football players take steroids. Come on, half the linemen look like oven stuffers. And every four years, one-quarter of the sprinters and half the weightlifters get tossed out of the Olympics for testing positive.

I don't know whether Armstrong ever took drugs to make him pedal faster. I hope he hasn't (even though I'm cognizant of the history that loads of cyclists are dopers). If big muscles are among the telltale signs, Armstrong doesn't appear to be using steroids. Mark McGwire had a chest as big as a Buick. Barry Bonds has a head the same size. Marion Jones had muscles coming out of muscles. Lance Armstrong actually looks sort of scrawny. Heck, Armstrong isn't even as big as Alex Sanchez. Armstrong rides a bicycle, for heaven's sake. And, yes, he beat cancer.

So we don't want to know whether he takes steroids. (Even though much of his cancer treatment was about using the right drugs at the right time, and consequently wouldn't Armstrong be up to speed about what drugs can do for you?) We want him to be pure, and his accusers to be jealous, jilted money-grubbing bastards; small men with big goals of taking the American down. We want to believe Lance Armstrong is an authentic hero.

It would be gratifying if McGwire and Bonds and Jones were clean because we want their records to be honest. But it's almost like we need Armstrong to be clean. Hardly any of us can hit 500-foot home runs, or run 100 meters in under 10 seconds, or punt a football 70 yards in the air. But all of us can get cancer. You want to believe you can beat it. You look at this little guy pedaling uphill in the rain, and you tell yourself that if Lance can beat cancer, you can, too.

That's the compact we have with Lance Armstrong that we don't have with Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds or Jose Canseco. Those guys are massive and superhuman. What could we possibly have in common with them? We're invested psychologically in Lance Armstrong in ways we can never be invested in them. They're about power. He's about hope. He gives us hope against our darkest fear, the fear of death. That's why so many of us hope Lance Armstrong doesn't cheat, even as we fully expect the others to.


Lance Armstrong has won the Tour de France six straight times, but his biggest victory, so far, has been his successful battle against cancer.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company