Armstrong was a charismatic jerk in the same way that Pete Rose was an engaging liar. Armstrong is one of those people you try to like, but he doesn’t care if you do. He’s got that bullet-proof ego. Raised by a single mom, deserted by his father, driven by anger as much as adrenaline.
Armstrong, 40, should neither be worshipped nor crucified.
He beat testicular cancer and a dire prognosis, helped raise $500 million in the anti-cancer crusade, pumped up awareness with his Livestrong bracelets and delivers hope in countless visits, calls and emails to patients and survivors.
He never was a saintly Superman.
And he’s not a martyr now.
Joe Paterno didn’t live up to his image. Nor did Tiger Woods. Fans keep yearning for heroes but keep looking in the wrong places.
Two memories linger: Armstrong climbing Alpe d’Huez in 2004, through the tunnel of crazed spectators, around the hairpin turns, up, up, up a road so steep your quads turned to concrete just walking it and ski lift chairs dangled above. The suffering, he said, made him feel alive.
And Armstrong standing atop the podium on the Champs-Elysees in July 2005, his lean body framed by the Arc de Triomphe, his children hugging their father’s legs, his jersey turned gold by the late afternoon light.
He had won his seventh consecutive Tour.
But it wasn’t enough to have beaten opponents, conquered mountains, dominated his sport.
To Armstrong, victory signified repudiation of his doubters and accusers.
Take that, he was saying, practically throwing champagne in the face of those unwilling to ignore the steadily mounting accounts against him. His bitterness was telling.
It was beautiful to suspend disbelief during the 2,000 miles of the Tour. Armstrong’s feats made for magnificent allegory.
But get past the scenery and drama and his most lasting legacy in the sports realm is distrust.
Because of Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis and Ben Johnson and Michelle Smith and Mark McGwire and too many other con artists, we cannot watch sports with the same joy and awe that we used to know.
The cheaters have cheated us.