In the latest example of an athletic association addressing a rules violation by pretending that the perpetrator didn’t exist, the International Cycling Union acted on overwhelming evidence of steroids use and stripped Lance Armstrong of all seven of his Tour de France titles. Just like Reggie Bush never played at USC and Joe Paterno never coached after 1998, there (now) were no Tour winners between 2000 and 2006.
The UCI’s empty standings reflect the new reality of steroids awareness. The Tour de France was won seven consecutive times by, precisely, no one. For seven years, roughly 1,200 men unknowingly raced a phantom they could never catch. The best any of those world-class cyclists could achieve was second place; the lead was reserved for an empty pulpit. Armstrong’s title vacation declared that the true victor of those Tours was not a man, but rather a warning about the drugs that had taken over the field so completely that nobody deserved to win.
Except, Lance Armstrong was a man. The nameless voids now occupying his spots in those races are ironic considering the power of humanity he represented. Armstrong was a world-class athlete long before becoming our generation’s leading face of perseverance and grit. Aside from the cancer and the charity work, Lance Armstrong and his superhero name were the incarnation of a thousand retail slogans about the human spirit and the will to succeed. It’s likely that steroids weren’t his means of success as much as a symptom of his determination. The man cheated, but this character assassination and vacating his titles is not beneficial to the sport.
"Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling, and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling," said Pat McQuaid, president of the UCI. Unfortunately for his august institution, Lance Armstrong is the only thing about cycling most Americans know. (Except for his equally juiced ex-teammate Floyd Landis, who presumably also warrants a Men in Black-style memory wand.) Lance Armstrong distinguished himself from an entire generation of roided-up cyclists and elevated the sport to a prominence unseen before or since. Forgetting everything about cycling isn’t such a tall order, seeing as how I know more about Lance Armstrong than about the Tour de France. We’ll never forget marveling over the water cooler about his resting heart rate of 32 BPM, and we’ll never forget which part of his anatomy was cut out. Thick, plastic yellow rubber bands are forever changed. None of that had to do with steroids, even if some degree of his success did. And not for nothing, but without artificial help, wouldn’t he have had a deficit of testosterone versus competitors with full sets?
A good part of my dismay over the whole defacing is annoyance at the idea that now there was no Lance Armstrong. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater; can we also extend this to having had no Richard Nixon? Can Ban Ki-Moon declare that Iraq didn’t exist from 2003 to 2011? The entire theory of punitive “vacation” in sports is ridiculous, and it’s unfortunately trendy right now. Whatever happened to the asterisk? Pete Rose, for example, is officially recognized as the all-time hits leader while serving a lifetime ban from baseball. Clearly this is punishment enough. If Penn State didn’t win those 15 years-worth of games, then to whom did their opponents lose? If USC didn’t win the 2004 National Championship, did Oklahoma? These rhetorical questions have made accidental Buddhists out of many a frat boy, and it’s time to stop. The vacation of a sports win is a logical fallacy. Except in the case of definitive corruption of the contest — it would make sense to say that there was no 1919 World Series winner, for example — these organizing commissions should not rob sports of its most beautiful and fundamental tenet: the certainty of the finish. Cheating is different from not having won. What we need is some equivalent of the dishonorable discharge: here was the winner, who achieved his success illegally. Wouldn’t that be more ignoble than not existing?
Americans are certainly going to remember Lance Armstrong — positively — for much longer than we’re going to care about his steroid use. While cheating robbed him of his official legacy, I don’t think his stature will be as diminished as, say, Tiger Woods’s after his fall from grace. The reason is that Lance has given us nothing more salacious to identify with him. Tiger Woods’s scandal was full of sex and lurid details, but Armstrong’s merely exposed his indomitable will to victory. That’s not going to stop us from gravitating toward the archetype of the Iron Man, especially one as romantic as a cancer survivor who beat a 40% survival prognosis. Lance Armstrong will long be an athletic hero, and we will remember his victories even if some plaque in France doesn’t.