Morgan Shandro/the Gauntlet

Lance Armstrong’s complicated legacy

Publication YearIssue Date 

Over the past few months, the sporting world has witnessed one of the most dramatic falls from grace in recent memory. Lance Armstrong went from being a seven-time champion of the toughest bike race on the planet to a disgraced athlete stripped of every title he acquired and banned for life from the sport he helped put on the map in North America.

It is difficult to overstate the drastic nature of these events and the reverberations it has caused throughout the cycling community. Armstrong defined the sport across the world, but especially in North America where he put cycling into the collective conscious. 

What finally showed Armstrong’s triumphs to be a fraud was a report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that came out in October. The over 1,000 page report includes the sworn testimony of 26 people, over half of them cyclists and 11 of them Armstrong’s former teammates describing the doping activities of Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service/Discovery Channel team. Some hard evidence is also provided in the report.

“The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence, including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use,” said the USADA in a press release.

Some of the most damning testimony in the report came from former teammates and high profile American cyclists George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde. They confessed to their personal use of banned substances and described in detail what USADA has termed a team-wide doping conspiracy in which Armstrong played a prominent role.

The evidence provided in the report is incontrovertible. Those who continue to believe that Armstrong was clean and is the subject of a vast conspiracy have become almost impossible to take seriously. We are continually learning more disappointing facts about the nature of bike racing in the late ’90s and early 2000s. An extraordinary number of riders have either admitted to doping or have been caught in some other way — doping was simply a part of the sport and it was only a matter of time until Armstrong was also exposed.

The absurdity of the cheating culture within the Tour de France during the Armstrong years becomes very clear by looking at the results of the races from 1996 onwards. For example, in the 2005 tour, every single rider in the top five and eight of the top 10 have either admitted to cheating, had a positive test or had their involvement in doping proven in another way. If the title for that race were to be awarded to the first rider with a clean record, one would have to go all the way down to 8th place rider Cadel Evans.

With Armstrong having his titles stripped, there is now a period of over a decade — from 1996 to 2008 — of Tour de France competitions where the champion has now been implicated in doping. It is difficult to comprehend the extent that performance-enhancing drugs and other forms of doping were engrained into the fabric of the Tour de France. American cyclist George Hincapie, a support rider for Armstrong for all seven of his titles, bluntly sums up what competitors were faced with during the Armstrong years: participate in doping or you don’t stand a chance.

“Early in my professional career, it became clear to me that, given the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs by cyclists at the top of the profession, it was not possible to compete at the highest level without them,” said Hincapie in a statement on his website.

One of the darkest aspects to Armstrong’s story is his role in a encouraging and even forcing his fellow teammates into using drugs. Christian Vande Velde rode with Armstrong from 1998 to 2003. Part of Vande Velde’s testimony includes an incident where he was invited to Armstrong’s apartment to meet with Dr. Ferrari, the doctor who provided the banned substances and provided instruction on their use for Armstrong and his teammates. According to Vande Velde, Armstrong said that if he wanted to keep his spot on the team he “would have to use what Dr. Ferrari had been telling him to use and would have to follow Dr. Ferrari’s program to the letter.”

Much of the testimony includes intimidation and pressure to dope in order to give the team a boost, thereby enhancing Armstrong’s chances of winning significantly.

The incredible nature of Lance Armstrong’s story has made his actions during his career even more disappointing. Armstrong was diagnosed with an advanced form of testicular cancer at age 25 in 1996.After receiving surgery, his doctor gave him a less than 40 per cent chance of survival. Beating cancer is an enormous achievement for anyone unfortunate enough to develop the disease, but to win one of the most grueling sporting events in the world just three years later was an extraordinary feat. 

It was a truly inspiring narrative that has surely given hope to many cancer sufferers. It was a story that allowed us to believe that we can accomplish anything through determination and perseverance. However, the lasting legacy of Armstrong has been irreparably tainted. This is not just a case of a high-performance athlete being caught for doping — it is the story of a disgraced messiah.

Armstrong’s cycling accomplishments were a part of a compelling story. It all seemed almost too remarkable to be true — and, as it turns out, it was.