Lance Armstrong still has a fan. "I read two of his books, and they were very inspirational," this fan tells me. "He cheated in a sporting event. In the big scheme of things, it's not the end of the world."
This is an article from the Jan. 28, 2013 issue
After the fan learned he had a form of cancer called multiple myeloma, he Googled it and read the bleak prognosis. Then he read Armstrong's 2000 auto-hagiography, It's Not About the Bike. Before Armstrong was revealed to be a bully whose lies would ignite the most flame retardant of trousers, the book helped armor this cancer patient—let's call him Jim—against two bone marrow transplants and a daily drip feed of despair.
That was 10 years ago. Jim's cancer is in remission, and the past decade of his life can't be repossessed, as Armstrong's seven Tour de France titles were. "The good that Armstrong has done for cancer research and cancer patients," says Jim, "far outweighs anything he did in enhancing his performance."
Now as it happens, one of Jim's siblings is a journalist who thinks Armstrong is lower than the Marianas Trench and twice as shady. Even the person who knows Armstrong best has called the cyclist "ruthless" and an "arrogant prick" who can't even remember all the innocent people he's sued. (That was Armstrong, by the way, describing himself to Oprah Winfrey last week.)
"What Armstrong did and what those who supported him did was the most cynical thing I have ever seen in sport," says David Walsh, who is in a position to know, having done heroic work exposing Armstrong as a drug cheat. Walsh, a reporter for London's The Sunday Times, was vilified by Armstrong—and more. In 2006 the paper paid $500,000 to settle a libel suit brought by the cyclist because Walsh told the truth at a time when Armstrong's denials were aggressive and still plausible to many credible (and credulous) sportswriters. To say nothing of sponsors and sports fans and cancer patients.
It's not that Jim doesn't care about any of these things. On the contrary, he's an athlete himself. (His college hockey coach—New Jersey Devils president and G.M. Lou Lamoriello—called him the best face-off man he ever had.) Jim knows other athletes were screwed by Armstrong and that the cyclist threatened, lied about and tried to ruin his former masseuse Emma O'Reilly; teammates Tyler Hamilton and Frankie Andreu; Andreu's wife, Betsy; former Tour champion Greg LeMond; and a take-a-number deli line of others. "Those things all bother me," Jim says. "I wouldn't tell my kids to emulate that behavior."
He also understands, as everyone now does, that Armstrong's story contained dangerously high levels of baloney. "It was this mythic, perfect story," Armstrong told Oprah. "And it wasn't true." But even if we dismiss Armstrong's entire biography as fiction—a fairy tale told by a charlatan and read by a believer—the salutary effect of his recovery from cancer has long since taken hold in Jim. Happily, it can't be undone.
And so Jim remains grateful that Armstrong used his ill-gotten fame to raise money to fight the disease. If Livestrong turns out to have been a fig leaf worn to hide the cyclist's shame, it doesn't matter to him. "His contribution to the effort to cure cancer and support families dealing with cancer makes me feel like he's done a lot more good than many athletes who didn't necessarily cheat in competition but also didn't use their celebrity for greater-good causes," Jim says.
Not all cancer patients see it this way, of course. Jim's father—we'll call him Don—recently battled melanoma. He's mystified by cycling and wishes Oprah had asked Armstrong: "How does your goofy sport even work? It looks like a whole team of guys rides together, then one of them is declared the winner."
Don is no hayseed. ("I've been to two World's Fairs," he likes to say.) But at 78, he happily says, "If someone looks me square in the eye, I tend to believe what he's saying."
Jim's brother, the journalist, is infinitely more skeptical. He's disinclined to believe anyone who opens his or her mouth, though he admits that this isn't the default setting he wants for his children: the permanently arched eyebrow, the constantly vibrating antennae of the highly tuned bulls--- detector.
Those antennae were quivering like polygraph needles during Armstrong's Oprah interview. "I'm not the most believable guy in the world right now," Armstrong said, one of the few statements of his that we know to be unimpeachably true.
It isn't that the truth about Armstrong lies somewhere between jerk and humanitarian, the poles he and Oprah staked out in their interview. He can be both at the same time. Everyone can. Acknowledging nuance gets in the way of a good polemical hissy fit, but it has the advantage of helping us find what's true. And isn't truth what everyone claims to want here?
With that in mind, I don't envy the poor sap at Armstrong's foundation who has to remove the v from all those LIVESTRONG bracelets. But I will always be grateful for Armstrong's existence. Why? Because it has undeniably helped my brother Jim, who's more important to me than any childish illusions.