LIVEWRONG: Lance Armstrong, Cancer, and Celebrity
"The riskiest thing you can do is get greedy" - Lance Armstrong
First and foremost, I’d like to go on record as saying that I am staunchly anti-cancer. I hate cancer. Cancer sucks. I’ve had personal and peripheral experience with the disease affecting various members of my friends and family, and I’m in favor of any organization seeking to raise money to fight cancer by raising awareness, conducting research, and providing opportunities for victims. Further, I’ve always thought that the color yellow is vastly underrated.
With all of this firmly in mind, Lance Armstrong is a narcissistic fraud who duped a willing public.
As of yesterday morning, November 12th, Lance Armstrong is no longer affiliated with Livestrong – the charity that he founded in 1997 after successfully completing a full recovery from testicular cancer. He stepped down as chairman of Livestrong last month, but he remained on the board of directors until resigning last week – presumably to mitigate the damage brought upon by his recent fiasco with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the International Cycling Union (UCI). According to Katherine McLane, a Livestrong spokeswoman, he “remains the inspiration” behind the charity and is the foundation’s largest donor. However, Lance’s departure as the figurehead of Livestrong speaks volumes about the impact of his indiscretions on his celebrity status and the state of his foundation.
There’s no question that Lance’s reputation has been demolished as part of the fallout from the widespread doping scandal in which he “allegedly” participated. He’s been stripped of his record-setting seven Tour de France titles, dropped by nearly all of his sponsors, and, now, it appears as though he’s lost control of his own charitable foundation. (I’m not sure Lance really cares that much, though – he’s rumored to be worth a cool $125 million.)
So, Lance isn’t a cycler anymore. He never won the Tour de France, and Nike has severed their highly lucrative relationship with him. How does this affect the public perception of Lance Armstrong? If he’s not the champion we thought he was, is he still the ambassador of hope for people battling cancer? How will his accomplishments be viewed by future generations?
Dr. VanWingen recently wrote a piece that dealt with the topic of legacy. His primary thesis is that a legacy is more than just a collection of clichéd designators on a tombstone. VanWingen believes that a meaningful legacy should consist of a lasting collection of positive memories, inspirational messages, and valuable lessons given and received.
For most of us, Armstrong perfectly embodied these criteria through his victory over cancer, the mass distribution of his Livestrong bracelets, and all those Tour de France titles. The problem is that the whole display was a fiction, a charade, a fairytale. Lance has been obstinately denying any involvement in doping for more than ten years, despite dozens of former teammates, coaches, doctors, and others affiliated with him that have gone on record stating their personal knowledge of his involvement with various types of illegal substances. As it turns out, he was nothing more than a drug-abusing grown man riding a bike in a skin-tight yellow leotard – which brings me to the notion of celebrity and hero-worship.
In this age of 24-hour sports coverage, billion-dollar box office hits, and television networks devoted entirely to reality television programs, it’s no wonder that our celebrities have adopted a more narcissistic approach to life. It doesn’t matter if they can ride a bike faster than anyone else on the planet, or if they happen to paint their skin orange and develop severe alcohol dependency on the boardwalks of New Jersey – we tell them they’re great and they believe it.
Many stars buy into the ill-conceived notion that their celebrity allows them to circumvent the rules. Being invited to red carpet events or doing the tango as a cast member of Dancing with the Stars leads to a sense of entitlement that seems difficult for certain individuals to rationalize. Many celebrities, Armstrong perhaps more than any other, use their stardom as a platform to convey a positive message and raise funds for worthy causes. The problem is that, often times, these philanthropic efforts reinforce the notion that superstars are exempt from behaving with honesty and integrity.
With all of this in mind, should any of us be shocked that Armstrong wasn’t exactly who we thought he was? This is a guy who went from achieving minimal success in his profession to becoming the most celebrated cyclist in the history of the sport in less than five years! It’s true that he gladly accepted the praise heaped upon him by the masses, but his shortcomings are magnified because of his social status – a status that we heaped upon him. Henceforth, his name will be forever scorned for his association with what one official referred to as, “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”
Despite Lance’s cheating, we need to look ourselves in the mirror for exalting him to a god-like station in the first place. At the end of the day, he’s just as human as anyone else. I can guarantee that he puts his pants on one leg at a time and probably tucks his kids into bed at night. As such, the man is just as fallible as the rest of us. The problem with Lance is that there's a disconnect between his lacking humility and his fallibility (well demonstrated by his tweet this past weekend). Undeterred by the facts, Lance still considers himself the winner of seven Tour de France titles!
We hold our celebrities to extremely high standards, but when they seek to inflate their own personas, they invite our contempt when they falter, as well as our praise when they thrive. There shouldn’t be any debate over this – Lance can’t have it both ways. He can’t bask in the fame and adulation tied with his stardom for fifteen years, dating Sheryl Crow and transcending the sport into the stratosphere of his own celebrity, only to resent how he is perceived in the public now that he’s been exposed. At the same time, it would be hypocritical of us to pretend like this is a complete shock when we firmly entrenched Armstrong in the role of hero by ignoring the obvious – he’s a cheater.
Since its inception, Livestrong has raised nearly 500 million dollars to “inspire and empower people affected by cancer.” 80 million people have invested in Lance Armstrong’s struggle by purchasing Livestrong wristbands at a $1 a pop. Over 80% of the total funds raised have gone to various programs and services for cancer survivors. These figures represent a nearly unfathomable amount of good done by Lance’s foundation.
Unfortunately, the success of the foundation will always be related to the nefarious actions of its creator. Now that his true self has been revealed, Armstrong will pay the price for disingenuously presenting himself as an admirable champion to an adoring public, but I truly hope the foundation that he created continues the inspiring work that they’ve been doing for the last 15 years.