Jerk and humanitarian may not make an apt oxymoron. But fallen and flawed cycling icon Lance Armstrong admitted, in Oprah Winfrey’s mother-of-all-interviews, that he was both.

Stripped of his seven titles and Olympic medal, it was tragic to see someone who epitomised the strength of the human spirit now showing that Gods can have feet of clay.

His fight to overcome advanced testicular cancer, that left him with a “coin-flip” shot at life, has now been completely over-run with stories of using banned substances to win, and as he says, win at all cost.

Just an act?

Sports writers will debate and dissect whether Armstrong was telling the truth in the widely telecast interview, or was it part of an act he is putting up to get the life ban on him off his back.

Not to condone doping in sports or justify a crime, but the real story from the Oprah interview, for Armstrong-believers, was one of human failing and an attempt to get up, dust oneself and re-boot.

When you see people diagnosed with cancer, you see the human spirit trying hard to hold up against all odds. And it is through this prism that the dwindling numbers of Armstrong’s supporters see him. His fighting spirit that beat the disease probably transcended to an unhealthy competition in his sport.

Fair-weather friends

Armstrong may have been driven by his need to win above anything else, but his story also tells of the weak human fabric of fair-weather friends — grown-up consenting adults who doped with him when the going was good, and of course, opportunistic brands that merrily piggybacked on Armstrong when he was seen to be a winner.

The parasitic relationship that brands have with icons is something we see all the time — a low performance or human failing in character could result in mouth-watering deals flying out of the window, before you could spell Lance. To not be able to stand by your brand-endorser and help him or her mend their life is also a face of dishonourable opportunism. Of course, it will be argued that companies are in it for the money and not for charity.

In Armstrong’s two-part interview, we get an insight into how competitors were given lighter sentences for turning approver, so to speak, while Armstrong was dealt what he likened to a death penalty by banning him from competitive sports. To paint him out as the magician criminal, who pulled off a massive doping scam, while the rest sat there white as lilies, does not quite wash with even the most enraged supporter of Armstrong, betrayed by his doping confession.

Punish him, by all means, for being part of a dope-infested culture. Punish him for not squealing on the wrongdoings in the system. Punish him for elbowing out players who may have been clean competitors. Remember, though, he has not caused anyone to die.

Flawed, failed and fallen. But if the man is on the mend, it may be well for a civilised society to not break the spirit that may be left in him. Armstrong gave his word to his son, mother (who he says is a wreck) and former companion in front of a global audience of about 4.3 million that he will never cross the line again in sports.

For Armstrong’s sake and for those cancer survivors and families who gained hope and strength from his life, one can only hope he keeps his word.

(This article was published on January 23, 2013)
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