Following the shutout the Baseball Writers of America pitched at this week’s Hall of Fame vote, attributed to the recent era of performance-enhancing drugs, writer Thomas Boswell was asked what he told his eight-year-old son when it comes to viewing athletes. He said, “You don’t look up at them, you shouldn’t look down on them. You should just look right at them.”
Good advice. If only it were that simple.
I grew up a St. Louis Cardinals fan and own around 100 pieces of Mark McGwire memorabilia. They sit quietly in a closet where they’ve been for the last 10 years since it became obvious that Big Mac cheated in order to achieve his monstrous home run numbers. Looking right at McGwire when the truth came out was relatively easy. He was just a ballplayer and I was just a fan.
It’s not that easy when it comes to Lance Armstrong.
In light of Armstrong’s plans to address the doping allegations on Oprah’s Next Chapter on January 17th, I’m ready to address my issues when it comes to acknowledging that my only true hero is not who I wanted him to be. (Yes, I meant that last sentence. I have a tremendous amount of respect for my parents, policemen, firemen, soldiers, etc., but my hero was Lance.) It wasn’t because he beat cancer and it wasn’t because he was a great cyclist. It isn’t about what Lance did for Lance, it’s about what Lance did for me.
Lance Armstrong saved my life.
If you’ve known me for longer than five years you know that I fight obesity. It’s been my issue since I was 12 years old and it will be my issue until the day I die. If you fight obesity you know how hard that battle really is. It goes on every day, with every bite of food and every glance in the mirror. It is regular appointments with the scale and the gym. You know when your struggle began and realize there is no victory or finish line. You can be winning, but you never win.
Beyond the cosmetic concerns, the health consequences of obesity are horrifying.
Obesity has been linked to increased heart disease and stroke. Obese individuals are TWICE as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as people of normal weight are. Several types of cancer are associated with obesity. Overweight men are at greater risk of developing cancer of the colon, rectum, and prostate. Sleep apnoea, osteoarthritis, gout and gall bladder disease have all been linked to obesity.
Yet even with all of this information, along with the ridicule we suffered as children and the discrimination we likely dealt with as adults, it’s incredibly difficult to get an obese person to fight their disease. The concern of friends and family isn’t enough. The desire to look better isn’t enough. Even the acknowledgement of an early death isn’t enough.
But for some reason, Armstrong’s fire ignited something in me. And I began to fight.
In 2001, I was given a copy of his bestseller, It’s Not about the Bike. I didn’t care to read it because of Lance, nor did I really give a hoot about cycling. I wanted to read it because a childhood friend of mine became an important person in Armstrong’s life and was featured prominently in the book.
What I read was amazing. There was something about Armstrong’s raw anger and focus towards not only fighting the cancer, but coming back stronger and better than ever. It wasn’t a belief in God (he doesn’t) or the support of the people around him (though he had it). It was an intense, raging determination to beat this thing no matter what the odds were. Lance was going to win.
That summer, I watched the Tour de France for the first time. I watched him ride and learned what it meant to ride angry. In 2003, I bought a mountain bike and I started riding angry. By 2006 I was a regular in spinning classes and riding very angrily. I pictured Lance riding triumphantly up the Alps every time my quadriceps burned and my breath became short on a high tension ride. “Lance suffered much worse than this,” I thought, “I can suffer a little bit more.”
In 2008 I bought a road bike and started doing triathlons and century rides. By 2009 I had shed over 100 pounds and was under the obesity line. Today, I’m still in the fight. I’m a certified indoor cycling instructor and ride five times per week. I’m not at my ideal weight, but I’m no longer obese and haven’t been in over four years. Every time I get on a bike, every time I teach a class, every time I fight through a work out and every time I look in the mirror, I think about Lance.
It’s different now, though. Now he’s a cheater. He’s a liar. He’s a bully. He can’t be a hero anymore. I should hate him. I should take his books, his t-shirts and his bracelet and throw it all in the closet with McGwire’s stuff. Even better, just chuck it in the garbage.
I’m not REALLY all that surprised he cheated. I’ve watched so much cycling over the last 12 years that I know how dirty the sport is even if I didn’t want to admit it. I believe Lance was the best of a drug-fueled era.
I’m disappointed that he lied, but I’m not sure I’m in any position to start casting stones over lies. Are you? Is anyone?
The level of bullying was pretty alarming. I’ve read about every book by or about Lance so I knew he wasn’t a terribly nice guy, but some of the stuff in USADA’s report is really awful. I don’t know how anyone can justify that. Certainly not me.
But most importantly, if there was never a Lance Armstrong story, I am likely a type 2 diabetic today. I never discover a love for cycling. I don’t lose all that weight. I prepare to turn 40 as my body starts giving out on me. I’m another casualty of obesity.
So how am I supposed to feel?
I don’t have that answer. I’m not planning to watch Armstrong’s interview with Oprah next week. There isn’t anything he can say that’s going to change how this feels. I know I can’t look up to him anymore, but I’m not willing to look down on him either. I hope one day I’m able to look right at him.
But for right now, I just need him to go away.