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Lance Armstrong, the Robber Baron of the Sporting World

Categories: Aaron Schafer
lance armstrong 2.jpg
I want to play a game. Just real quick, okay? It won't take but a second, I promise. Oh, quit frowning. Seriously, it will be super fast and over before you know it. (No jokes about my sex life, please.) 

We're going to play a word association game. Just one round, one word. I want you to say the first word that comes to mind when I say the following: 

Carnegie ________. 

Did you say 'hall'? Chances are you did, if you're like 95 percent of, well, everyone. It's pretty unlikely you said 'steel', despite the fact the company that made the Hall possible was, in fact, Carnegie Steel. (Andrew Carnegie did not build halls for a living.) 

Why am I bringing this up? Is it just my love of silly segues? Well, partially. But I have legacies on my mind this morning, and it's because of a certain fallen national hero. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Lance Armstrong

So unless you've been living under a rock for the past couple days, it's likely you've already heard a little bit of what it is that has turned Lance Armstrong into our newest social pariah. Armstrong, after years of denial after denial, finally admitted, to Oprah Winfrey no less, that he did, in fact, use a wide variety of performance enhancing substances over the course of his rather celebrated career. If you're unfamiliar with his accomplishments and fame, well, then not only have you been living under a rock for a decade and a half, it's one god almighty big fucking rock, too. Point being, Lance Armstrong is one of the most accomplished, not to mention most famous, athletes in the world. 

And now, well, I can't really say he is now an outcast, because he essentially already was. After an investigation into his various dealings, Armstrong was banned from cycling last year. He has largely stepped away from the charity and cultural phenomenon that bears his name (in part, at least), the Livestrong Foundation. Bottom line, in as much as a man can become persona non grata in a world he once ruled, that's where Lance Armstrong is these days. 

The fallout could get even worse for him going forward, though. There are numerous people lining up to file suit against Armstrong, from people whose reputations he shattered when they came forward with allegations about doping to the United States Postal Service, whose sponsorship of Armstrong's team puts him in some very choppy waters, considering much of his career is now considered to meet the legal definition of fraud. 

So yeah, things kind of suck for Lance Armstrong these days. And it could get worse. But legal ramifications are for lawyers; what I'm interested in is the legacy the man will leave. 

Legacies can be a tricky thing, and as I've listened to the various talking heads dissect what this could, should, or will mean for Armstrong's, I find myself taking the long view. 

The elephant in the room, of course, is cancer. Pretty big elephant, wouldn't you say? The story with Armstrong has always been more powerful than the accomplishments, even when the accomplishments seemed superhuman. (Which, I suppose, they ultimately were.) This is a man who survived cancer, who came back to the world with the disease clenched between his teeth, and tore its throat out. He inspired millions of people everywhere in their own fights with the disease. His foundation has raised millions upon millions of dollars, doing good all over the world. There is Lance Armstrong the man, who did amazing things in his sport and some rather awful things outside of it, and there is Lance Armstrong the myth, the myth of living strong and healthy and overcoming whatever odds you may be facing, no matter how long. 

As legacies go, it's tough to imagine a larger one than this. And now, it's all sort of on the table. Armstrong is a fraud. Worse yet, in a lot of ways, he's just a flat out bad guy. In the course of his career, he stepped on countless people. When allegations were leveled against him, he went after the people making them. He ruined lives, and turned hubris into a fine currency. You want a real-life Nietzschan superman? Lance Armstrong could be a pretty good place to start. 

And this is what brings me back around to what I was talking about at the very beginning of the column, when I asked you about the word Carnegie. 

See, the hall named Carnegie is named after the man named Carnegie. Andrew Carnegie. He was...well, he was a complicated figure. There were times when his business practices veered from shrewd to downright brutal. There's a reason the captains of industry in those days were referred to as robber barons. And yet, some of the names from that time are names we still know now, largely on the basis of the charitable endeavors they left behind. Names like Vanderbilt and Morgan and Rockefeller and Pulitzer and, yes, Carnegie. Andrew Carnegie was one of the most merciless businessmen the world has ever seen, and yet there are countless libraries and schools and concert halls and a thousand other worthwhile things in this country that bear his name, because he ended up giving away as much money as anyone ever has, all in the name of philanthropy. 

I wonder what will happen to the name Armstrong in the future. Or to Livestrong, both the foundation and the brand. There are people right now convinced this is the end for both Armstrong and all his philanthropic efforts, that his own fall from grace will take all his good works right down the drain alongside him. Me? I tend to think a little differently. 

Cycling is not anything I care about. The last time I was on a bike I fell off, which was all the more humiliating because it was one of those stationary exercise bikes. (Note: this is a joke only, and not at all true. My almost comically oversized genitals prevent me from sitting on any sort of bicycle seat whatsoever.) Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France a bunch of times means literally nothing to me. And yet, I bought one of those yellow bracelets back in the day. 

I've known cancer survivors, and those who weren't so lucky. I've lost family members to various iterations of the big C. One of my closest friends in the world lost her mother to breast cancer at far too young an age. My point is, the thing Lance Armstrong ultimately attached his name to wasn't his own greatness in a sport that is notoriously dirty even by 21st century professional sports standards, but the story. All the people inspired by him, who managed to get up out of bed helped a little tiny bit by the thought of what someone else was accomplishing after surviving, that's the part of his legacy I really hope the world doesn't forget about. 

Lance Armstrong is a fraud, and in a lot of ways a really shitty human being. And yet, if a fraud can add so much good to the world, do we still have to hate him? The legacy of any and every human being is going to contain plenty of good and bad both; how do we ever determine how much good you have to do to erase the bad? Or, at least, to outweigh it, I suppose. 

The world remembers Andrew Carnegie today as a great philanthropist first, a titan of industry second, and a ruthless, strike-breaking, merciless bastard third. Or not at all. And maybe that's okay. For all the negative parts of the man's legacy, the world is almost surely a better place because of what he put back into it. Yes, Carnegie Hall and a thousand libraries were all built on the foundation of Carnegie Steel and the bowed backs of uncounted legions he stepped on and exploited to craft his empire. But the good he put back into the world cannot be ignored, and the world has largely forgiven (and probably forgotten), the other stuff. 

In the end, I really don't know how I feel now about Lance Armstrong's legacy. I do wonder, though, if 30 years down the road, or 50, or 100, we don't all remember the Livestrong Foundation, named for its founder, that has done so much good for so many people fighting for their lives, and barely anyone even remembers that all of that good was started by a real dick who rode a bike for a living. 

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