It’s hard to get excited by the Tour de France this year when my son’s sports hero appears to have hit the skids after another round of allegations that he cheated throughout his career by taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Lance Armstrong’s right-hand man, Tyler Hamilton, claimed during a federal investigation that his cycling leader not only took PEDs, including erythropoietin (EPO), he tested positive for them and even paid off anti-doping officials.
Hamilton, who turned over his own 2004 cycling medal after admitting drug use, was granted immunity by prosecutors.
My teenage son and I watched Hamilton as he shared this information on the CBS show 60 Minutes last week.
I felt sorry for my son. As an adult we can shake our heads and sigh as we wait for the investigation to play out. But what do you say to a kid whose Christmas list consisted primarily of Armstrong’s “Livestrong” paraphernalia? He enjoyed the fact that a portion of the proceeds from Armstrong’s brand goes to benefit cancer patients.
It came as no surprise when his initial reaction was denial.
“I don’t believe it,” my son said, as we watched the interview on 60 Minutes.
This child has never been short on loyalty. But as the interview unfolded, the evidence against the seven-time Tour de France champion mounted. By the end of the hour it became harder to ignore the claims. We paused the program to view the document that may become the smoking gun.
“Suspicious and consistent with EPO usage,” it said.
Shortly after that finding, the program claimed, Armstrong donated $25,000 to the International Cycling Union, and he donated another $100,000 a few years later.
As the program finished, it became harder for my son to ignore the mountains of evidence. But he wasn’t entirely convinced.
“I’ve read Lance Armstrong’s book,” he reasoned with expertise. “The reason he did so good is because before he had cancer he didn’t realize how much he wanted it.”
I had read Armstrong’s book, too, and welled up when I read his account of how he endured cancer to emerge victorious in his sport. I wished my son and I could go back to bonding over a shared hero.
Armstrong, innocent until proven guilty, deserves the full trial which will come. But I was beginning to feel enraged that my poor son would have to endure another sporting hero falling from grace through the use of PEDs.
I looked at my son and sympathized with him. I wanted him to retain his hopeful nature, and the jury was still technically out on Armstrong. Like most of these sports figures, allegations can go on for some time before a judicious conclusion can be reached. I tried to prepare him for the possibility that Lance Armstrong, like other Tour de France winners, may end up confessing that he took drugs.
“What if Armstrong confessed to lying,” I asked cautiously. “What if most pro-cyclists were taking drugs and lying about it? Would you still wear the Livestrong gear?” I asked him as I glanced at his well-worn Livestrong shoes he has put on every day faithfully for months.
“No,” he said firmly. Then, he paused and thought about the portion of the profits that benefit cancer patients. “Well, maybe. It’s for cancer. It would depend on how many times he took drugs. There are all these facts we don’t know.”
I respected his need to gather the evidence before jumping to conclusions. But the life of a child, as it should be, is consumed with friends, fun and family. Pouring over legal evidence is not at the top of his agenda.
It would help if Armstrong had delivered one simple line at any point for the record: “I have never taken drugs.” Instead, he opts for his old standby when grilled by reporters: “I have never tested positive for drugs.”
Playing video games later in the weekend, his friend weighed in on the controversy.
“If his attitude was that he was sorry about it, I would still wear his stuff,” said my son’s friend as he sat sprawled on our basement sofa between games. "If his attitude was, ‘I don’t care,’ then I wouldn’t.”
Pushing the envelope further, I asked this friend, “What if you worked your whole life to compete in the Tour de France. What if you never took drugs, but then right before the race it turns out all the top athletes were taking just enough drugs to test negative, and that’s the only way you could win? You worked your whole life for this moment. Then what?”
Without hesitation, his friend said, “I guess if you didn’t take the drugs you would know you’d done something right in your life.” He brightened a little before adding, “What would they say if you said, 'They offered me drugs and I said no'? You’d be a huge hero!"
It seems that mostly these kids want a sincere hero. They don’t seem to mind if someone makes a mistake, as long as they admit it and seem a contrite.
“I like Walter Payton,” my son’s friend said. “He wasn’t cocky. He donated 75 percent of his earnings to charity to better the sport. I wouldn’t blame anyone for making a mistake. You just have to go and fix it.”
Over breakfast the next day my youngest daughter weighed in.
“People don’t get in trouble for doing something bad. They get in trouble for lying about it,” she said.
I’m not sure how the Armstrong controversy will play out. A few days after the 60 Minutes interview, Armstrong’s attorneys delivered a demand laced with legal jargon and lacking the simple line, “Lance Armstrong has never taken performance-enhancing drugs.”
Attorneys John W. Keker and Elliot R. Peters said the 60 Minutes feature was a “demonstrable falsehood that you recklessly presented, and then bolstered with other untrue assertions and facts taken out of context.”
An “untruth” may be difficult to explain. But the truth is never hard to tell.
Watching the commercials for the Tour de France with my oldest daughter, I couldn’t contain my distaste for “untruths.”
“The Tour de Cheats is coming up soon,” I said with undisguised resentment.
Turning to her dad, the voice of reason in our home, she asked for his ruling,
“Dad, do you think that most of the athletes have taken drugs in the Tour de France?”
“Pretty much,” my cycling enthusiast husband said nonchalantly, as he poured himself a cup of tea.
How all the facts will emerge, I cannot be sure. But I noticed my son’s face brighten when he showed me that his toe finally popped through the top of his Livestrong Nike shoes he had begged me for last year. He had worn them every single day since we got them. They were a great product and the only shoes to survive seven full months on my Incredible Hulk’s super-human feet.
“Can we get some new shoes this weekend Mom?” he asked, sounding excited to be done with them. “These have had it.”
For the first time ever, I’m happy to go shopping for new shoes.