You probably know the key facts of bicyclist Lance Armstrong’s downfall: that the world champion athlete who had taken on cancer, cycling competitions and people (later, a sports bureaucracy) that constantly accused him of drugging his way to winning was recently the subject of a report with apparently conclusive evidence that he chronically took drugs – an assertion which Armstrong has long denied – and has been deprived of his titles, banned from his sport and fired by his sponsors.
This week, Lance Armstrong resigned as chairman of his cancer charity.
I’m not a cycling fan, so I don’t follow the sport and, beyond a general knowledge, I am not familiar with his record, controversies and victories. But I know that Armstrong, who made a comeback from his own cancer diagnosis to win seven Tour de France titles, founded a cancer charity in 1997 that became a huge enterprise which reportedly has raised $500 million for cancer patients. That’s good if it’s true and if the money went to the patients as promised by the charity. But if Armstrong can’t be trusted to engage in honest competition, and from what I know it seems clear that he can’t, why would anyone trust that the charity Armstrong founded is what he says it is and does what he says it does? The question goes to the problem I have had with Lance Armstrong.
Whenever people used to talk about him, they usually fawned over him, which is not the same as admiring him, and it rarely seemed driven by his athletic ability. Instead, people emphasized his cancer survival and acts of charity. His ability appeared to be an afterthought. I’d like to think that his charity seriously advances scientists toward a cure for cancer and I don’t know enough to say. I’m neither fazed nor impressed by outward signs of one’s charitable giving – not by Romney’s, not by anyone’s – including rubber bracelets. If people want to make an issue of charity and display a token of their cause, I figure they may have good reasons.
But when acts of charity and recovery overshadow the source for charity and the reason for recovery – living an honest, productive life with integrity – we should activate closer scrutiny, not feed a fixation. Lance Armstrong, because he apparently perpetuates a fraud, provides a lesson in why.