The investigative journalist Bill Gifford has written a pretty damning story for Outside magazine about — among other things — how little money Livestrong puts into cancer research and how they exist to promote Lance Armstrong.
Nearly everyone in the cycling blogosphere is writing their take as you read this and more will no doubt be written this week. We’ll add a small anecdotal story to the avalanche of opinions headed your way.
Last year on the second rest day at the 2011 Tour de France, I had a fantastically fun dinner in Montpellier with all the tour writers for Cycle Sport magazine. As a newcomer to the official world of cycling journalism, it was not only a thrill but an honor to spend the evening with pros like Edward Pickering, Lionel Birnie, Andy McGrath and Anthony Tam.
They had hilarious stories about covering the Tour de France and Ed was generous in ordering several extra bottles of wine that probably went beyond the expense account. It’s always informative to get another take on things and in the course of the evening up came the subject of Armstrong.
As an American, I have complicated opinion on Lance Armstrong. I was a nationalistic fool cheering him to his seven Tour wins. I’ve read both his books several times. I consider him the greatest endurance athlete of our time, an inspirational character, a great leader and yes, maybe even a visionary. I don’t even care if some of that saintly image is fabrication. On the other hand, I also consider him a liar, a hypocrite, vindictive and petty.
Continuing the complications, I am 100% sure he doped and yet on some important level, I don’t care — for several reasons, one which will bring us back around to dinner in Montpellier. Like many Americans, I have an almost unavoidable tendency to be more forgiving of American athletes than those from other countries. I’m much harder on Alberto Contador than the Spanish and much more harsh on Alexander Vinokourov than most Kazakhs.
So even despite my firm belief that Armstrong doped his way to seven Tour de France victories, I excuse him on two levels. One, everybody was doping in that era so in some sick sense, it was a level playing field among the elite, the right man still won.
Second — and here we arrive at dinner and the latest Outside Magazine story — is that I tend to under-judge and forgive based on the fact that Armstrong has raised tens of millions for cancer research. It never occurred to me question that fact.
There at the table, sitting outside on the downtown square on a warm evening in beautiful Montpellier, Lionel Birnie of Cycle Sport called that fact bullshit. He didn’t use that exact word but he went into a ten minute rant against everything that Armstrong had ever done and when I offered the counter-point of those millions raised for cancer research he nearly spat out his red wine.
He told me in no uncertain terms that Livestrong was a sham, that he’d seen or done the digging and the real fact was they gave very little for cancer research. Now, Birnie is a well-respected cycling journalist and highly experienced. His assertions about Livestrong snapped my head back.
Well, Lionel’s opinion was seconded by the Outside magazine story. It is just another damaging attack on the one thing Armstrong holds most precious: the Myth of Lance. Maybe someday Federal Investigator Dirk Novizky will detail for us all the transgressions in Lance’s great race to sports legend and cultural icon.
Since Montpellier I’ve stopped using the half apologetic, half defensive “well, yeah, but Lance did raise millions for cancer research.” But I will do Lance a favor because how does anyone put a dollar amount on hope and inspiration?
Even if Livestrong didn’t give one dollar for cancer research, the hope he gives millions of people with cancer to keep fighting is beyond calculation. Lionel was right, Outside magazine is right and all the same, on this subject of hope being as valuable as research, Lance Armstrong is right.