My son, John, and I stood several layers of people deep near the Champs Elysees on July 29, 2001 – one of the best days of my life. We had flown to Paris the day before for a bike trip, which luckily coincided with the final stage of the Tour de France. We knew Lance Armstrong would win and we wanted to be there. We bought American flags, arrived there early, and waited in the hot sun surrounded mostly by French fans. We were excited and proud of our country and our champion. For about an hour, nothing happened. Then there were helicopters overhead and a caravan of support bikes and news trucks advancing the cyclists. Finally, Lance appeared in the distance, his bright yellow leader’s jersey standing out.
On this last day of the Tour, the cyclists took 10 laps, and, in Armstrong’s case, 10 victory laps. On his first turn, we waved our flags and cheered as he pedaled by. On the next, I took a picture of Armstrong as he biked past us, out in front of several others. I framed it, kept it in our company kitchen, and looked at it for 11 years. It brought the memory of the day back and inspired me to stay in shape and focus on hard goals.
I took the picture down last year after the U.S. and World Doping Agencies banned Armstrong from cycling and stripped his wins from the record books. I stowed the image in a drawer by my desk, replacing it with a panoramic shot of Utah mountains.
If there was ever any doubt about Armstrong’s guilt, it’s gone after his confessional to Oprah Winfrey. It’s now undisputed that he used prohibited performance boosting drugs, lied consistently about his actions, and bullied former team mates and others while fighting to keep them silent and discredit them.
I will always remember the great time John and I had that day, but the memory of seeing Lance Armstrong do victory laps in Paris means something to me now that it didn’t then. He had no limits on ambition and his dominant value was to win at all costs.
Some will say that he did what almost all other world class cyclists did, and that he just did it better. Maybe so, but the point is that he chose the sport, he chose to break its rules, and he chose to ruin those around him to safeguard his record and false image. That can’t be excused or rationalized. Now, he’s paying a steep price. Armstrong created a legacy that will stand for greed and ruthlessness. In its own way, his downfall will be as long-lasting as Bernie Madoff’s.
Every organization, whether it is involved in sports, business, academia, or government, has rules. However, many rules are only enforced retroactively, after the damage is already done. We need to think more about the costs of our actions before we do them and temper our desire to win with integrity. The costs of doing otherwise can be much worse than we think. When I look at my picture now, I have different thoughts about Lance Armstrong. I no longer see a champion. Instead, I see a bully, liar, and cheat. If that’s what Lance Armstrong’s career ends up meaning to others, then it will be a lasting legacy, and not the one Lance ever contemplated for himself.