By Bissinger, Buzz
Newsweek , Vol. 160, No. 10
Cyclists--Beliefs, opinions and attitudes
United States Anti-Doping Agency--Investigations
Armstrong, Lance--Drug use
Armstrong, Lance--Beliefs, opinions and attitudes
Byline: Buzz Bissinger
To hell with the doping charges. Lance Armstrong performed miracles. Stop tearing down our idols. Why I still believe.
On the website where seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong explained why he would no longer contest charges that he cheated to gain an unfair physical advantage, there is an image in the background.
It is faded, but it is a photograph of Armstrong with a huge and toothy smile on his face in the sweet meat of being the ultimate champion. When I printed out his statement, the image was no longer visible, a haunting yet perfect metaphor for what Armstrong has seemingly become: no longer there. At least no longer there in terms of what millions thought of him--a man not only of remarkable, almost superhuman physical resilience, but a man millions of kids grew up wanting to emulate. One of them being my own 21-year-old son, Caleb.
"I took up cycling because of him. I got interested in the tour. He was a really good model of being healthy and being active ... He inspired so many people."
Caleb is not blind. He said it was hard not to read the statement and conclude that when Armstrong said, "There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say 'Enough is enough' " and that he was finished fighting the United States Anti-Doping Agency's fanatical attempt to strip him of his victories, what lay below the outrage was an admission that he may well have cheated with performance enhancers in order to win. That bothers my son. It is why he called the stunning announcement a "sad day." But it is also why he called it a "weird day" emotionally because of the constant effort to make Armstrong into a villain.
"I think this has been a witch hunt for years," he said. "There's clearly been this attempt since day one to take down this hero. Despite the fact he may have had some aid, at the end of the day what he did is pretty amazing."
Until I spoke to my son, I was all set to declare Armstrong yet another fallen sports idol, so many at this point they could fill the national cemetery.
To hell with that.
I still believe in Lance Armstrong. I believe his decision had nothing to do with fear of being found guilty in a public setting before an arbitration panel, but the emotional and mental toll of years and years of fighting charges that have never been officially substantiated--despite stemming all the way back to 1999.
"I am more at ease and at peace than I have been in 10 years," he told me in an exclusive phone interview with Newsweek. "I am focused on today and what will happen in the future."
His thinking, he told me, was that "we've got to stop with this. For my own mental health. For my family. For the foundation. And for the sport of cycling. Cycling doesn't need this."
There were immediate concerns over what impact his decision would have on the fundraising abilities of his foundation to fight cancer and the Livestrong campaign that promotes it. "The big question some people have is what will this do to Livestrong," said Armstrong, who will turn 41 later this month. But then he gave me figures showing that between Friday and the day before, the number of donors was up tenfold, the amount given up twenty-five-fold, and the amount of merchandise sold up two-and-a-half-fold.
Armstrong is relieved by the support for the foundation. In the past 13 years, nearly half a billion dollars has been raised. In the eyes of many, the scope of Livestrong, as well as his own story as a cancer survivor who went on to win all those Tour de France titles, makes him a hero regardless of any allegation. But Armstrong himself bristles at the notion. "I never wake up and think I'm a hero. I'm just a guy who got through a disease and I don't deserve any credit for that. I was just very lucky."
He is a hero, one of the few we have left in a country virtually bereft of them. …