Love the way you lie

livestrongI found out about Lance Armstrong being stripped of his Tour De France titles the way I find out about most things nowadays: I opened up Twitter to a bunch of lame jokes and half-baked vitriol. Given the positive effect he’d had on the world, it seemed to me like Armstrong deserved better, perhaps a bit more reverence during his inevitable moment of public disgrace, but why should he be any different than Tiger Woods or anyone else?

Several years ago, when I became convinced the day would come when Armstrong’s empire would eventually be torn down, I bristled at the thought of those who’ve used him as an inspiration during their battles with cancer thinking they’d been worshipping a false idol. I’d long suspected Armstrong hadn’t been on the level about doping; I just preferred if that inconvenient truth never surfaced for the benefit of those who truly needed to believe someone like him truly existed.

Besides, I had my own image of Armstrong to reconcile.

*****

I sat in a hot tub in the shadow of the big pyramid in Las Vegas back in early December 2007, holding my sore leg directly in the jet stream, hoping it would have some effect.

It was two days before I was to run my second marathon. On my final warmup run on the Strip after a solid year of training, I aggravated a dormant injury to a tendon in my lower leg. I woke up that Friday and could barely walk; the race was Sunday. Grasping for straws, I thought maybe the hot water might help.

Winter days in the desert aren’t nearly as frigid as in New Jersey, but it was still chilly, maybe lower 50’s. Wearing the unusual combination of shorts and a ski hat, I sat alone reading through steamed-up lenses, a far cry from what rap videos had shown me occurs in Las Vegas hot tubs.

For inspiration and to calm my nerves, I brought into the tub a book about Lance Armstrong’s 2004 Tour De France victory, seeking inspiration in his otherworldly focus. My choice of reading material was fitting, as Armstrong had long been a driving force of sorts for me.

Hardly a cycling fan, I had been late to the party, first growing interested during that 2004 Tour, Lance’s sixth of seven in a row. But I was one of the first on the LiveStrong bandwagon; enamored with the athlete and his cause, I went to NikeTown and bought 30 yellow wristbands the first day they hit the market. I’ve worn one every day since, long after it became passé.

That summer, I watched Armstrong bike in real time as dawn broke during overnight shifts at work. More so than any of my sports teams, I wanted him to win, desiring to keep the amazing narrative going. He was a modern-day superhero, a walking Disney movie, and I very much wanted to believe he was doing it on the level despite my immediate skepticism.

In part inspired by Armstrong, I mostly stopped drinking, cleaned up my diet and grew more dedicated to running. In 2006, I reached a longstanding goal of running the New York Marathon, and I couldn’t have scripted it better that for my first race, I’d get to compete against Lance in his first marathon.

(To be honest, I wasn’t much competition. I never actually saw Armstrong, who beat me by an hour. Bobby Flay was a more realistic adversary, nipping me by less than a minute. I dominated Mike Huckabee.)

A year later, with the hot tub having had no effect, I reclined that night in my room in the Luxor, an ice pack on my leg and Gang Starr playing on my laptop while I studied my Armstrong book, thinking about the year of solitary work I’d put in toward my goal.

The next morning, my leg felt good as new and stayed that way. I ran the race I wanted to run, beating my NYC time by about 20 minutes. For the second straight year, I wore a LiveStrong shirt to run.

The ice – and a few timely painkillers – soothed my inflammation. DJ Premier calmed my nerves. But as it had been for several years, it was Armstrong’s example that ultimately set the tone for me. The man cheated death and won the most grueling endurance race imaginable seven consecutive times. Surely I could overcome a sore leg.

*****

One by one, our heroes inevitably get torn down like LeBron’s Witness billboard. In a TMZ/Twitter society, no longer can purported family man Tiger Woods back his car into a tree on Thanksgiving and get off scot-free; never again would an errant Twitpic not bring down Anthony Weiner. Particularly with athletes, very few are left unscathed; lord knows why Derek Jeter’s lame “gift bag” ritual didn’t do more damage to his spotless reputation.

Armstrong’s downfall became another convenient referendum on hero worship for the holier-than-thou crowd. Never mind that cancer patients needed something, anything, to believe in, they and everyone else became a prop for a lame and condescending cautionary tale about putting too much personal stock in anyone lest they be rendered a potential fraud.

It turns out Armstrong’s legacy hasn’t suffered nearly as much as I thought it would. Everyone in the sport was doping, what he accomplished was still totally awesome, and the inspirational aspects of LiveStrong had long ago superseded the fact that he was a remarkable athlete. (I’d prefer if Lance’s foundation still actually funded cancer research, which it apparently doesn’t, but he’s been a significant positive force regardless.)

Having turned 33 a couple of weeks ago, I’m well past the point of canonizing the athletes I root for. That process began for me in sixth grade, when I had to wrap my head around the fact that the same Darryl Strawberry with that magnificent swing was the one that apparently had a tendency to get drunk and hit his wife.

But I still remember vividly the only game I ever saw Strawberry play for the Mets in person, and that was a fantastic day. The fact that McGwire and Sosa were walking pharmacies didn’t make checking box scores every night back in the Summer of ’98 any less awesome. Arturo Gatti had far more demons than I could have imagined, but I wouldn’t trade anything for those nights I watched him fight in Boardwalk Hall.

Lance Armstrong was almost certainly doping his blood, and if so he lied about having done it. But he still inspired millions to fight against cancer, people who no doubt will continue to ride for him.

And nothing will ever take away that night in the Luxor, when I needed something to believe in, and Lance was the perfect avatar. It hardly mattered that I latched on to the flawless mythology instead of the somewhat flawed man behind it.

It’s certainly not productive to be idealistic to the point of delusion. But embracing reality doesn’t mean we needn’t hold on to our memories and experiences as something quite special, even if the people that inspire them steadfastly become less so.

Esoteric

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