Lance Armstrong has thrown in the towel with all the abhimaan of a martyr. He has announced that he will not fight the USADA on doping charges, not because he is admitting guilt, but because “enough is enough” and he is just the victim of an “unconstitutional witch-hunt.”
The USADA has said piously that it’s a “sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes” and said it will ban him for life and strip him of his seven Tour de France titles.
Putting aside the merits of each side’s arguments, what’s blindingly clear is we’ve come a long way from Marion Jones.
After the 2000 Sydney Olympics Jones was America’s hero. She’d won five medals in track and field. She was showcased in an IMAX film called Top Speed. She became one of the first female millionaires in track and field. When she finally pleaded guilty in 2007 to lying about using steroids she lost everything. She was sentenced to six months in prison. The bank foreclosed on her mansion. She had to sell off her mother’s house to raise money. “Being No 1 and being Marion Jones meant nothing in prison,” she told a television show earlier this year.
Armstrong might lose his seven titles but he seems confident that he is in little danger of losing anything else. In his book he is still No 1 and he is still Lance Armstrong, the great white hope of cancer survivors everywhere.
“I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours,” he said in his statement.
By calling it quits instead of risking being found guilty in court or in arbitration, he can play more sinned against than sinning. He talked about being “the fittest 40-year old on the planet” and the work he plans to do with his foundation and its milestone of raising $500 million.
That’s not chump change for an athlete who is quitting a fight under a cloud. But Armstrong is obviously gambling on the fact that drugs and doping have become so commonplace now that the public is increasingly blasé about them.
Now if Armstrong had been caught in a sex scandal – that might have been far more serious for his future endorsements, his foundation and his stature as one of cycling’s all-time greats. Tiger Woods found that out the hard way. His endorsements career came to a screeching grand slam of a halt after his extramarital affairs hit the tabloids. More than a dozen women claimed to have had affairs with him. Woods crashed his Cadillac Escalade into a tree. His wife left him.
Mind you, none of this had anything to do with his golf. But AT&T, Accenture, Gatorade, Gillette all dropped him like a hot potato. Woods who had a goody goody image in public and played a genteel sport had been caught in the cardinal advertising sin — of not being the wholesome family man he professed to be. He became endorsement dog food.
Will the same thing happen to Lance Armstrong? After all, the charges against him relate directly to his sport. Will the Livestrong collection of shoes and apparel be retired? Will all those yellow rubber bands become collectors’ items? Nike has already said it will stick by Armstrong. ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell noted “Fact of the Night: @lancearmstrong has 820 times the Twitter following of @usanatidoping.” He is still ranked #21 in the most influential celebrities on Twitter according to WeFollow.com. Rovell guesses that donations to his foundation will go down but “Armstrong won’t lose the people who he told to live strong, who he inspired to fight on when they had lost their hair, when chemo had ravaged their bodies just like it had invaded his.” His advertisers are more likely to remember that in 2007, when he was already in the last lap of his cycling career, he became the spokesman for a small caffeine-free energy drinks company. In three years its sales had grown five-fold and it raised $23 million in funding according to CNBC.
The public has become so inured to doping stories now that it pretty much assumes every athlete takes something or the other in the race to the top. Its legality seem to be more a matter of technicality and timing than any great moral failure. Athletes have blamed everything for failing drug tests. Tyler Hamilton who accused Armstrong of doping said his red blood cell boost was because of a twin who died in utero and somehow contributed some blood cells to him before dying. Another Tour de France winner Alberto Contador said the clenbuterol in his blood came from a steak that came from a cow that must have been dosed with it. For the public it’s just an alphabet soup of polysyllabic chemical names. In locker rooms all over the world, everyone is discussing supplements and the line between which chemical combination is legal and which is not seems fuzzy to most of us who are not pros. The London Olympics tested athletes for 240 banned substances. That number will probably rise by the time Rio happens as the cat and mouse game between the athletes and the sports bodies continues. Fewer athletes tested positive for doping in Beijing Olympics than at Athens. But that was regarded more as proof of sophisticated drugs rather than less doping. The “win at all costs” approach to sports that USADA head Travis Tygart lamented is now par for the course.
Armstrong will probably still live strong. Or at least strong enough because for most of us what has changed is the meaning of cheating. The accusation of performance enhancement drugs doesn’t really sound like cheating anymore. But sex with porn stars when you have a beautiful blonde wife at home — now that definitely, indisputably, is cheating.