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 in France which by lucky coincidence 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, got 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 ten laps, in Armstrong’s case, ten 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 it in a drawer by my desk and replaced 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 undisputed now 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. We left the Tour and went to Parc Floral, a long cab ride away, to see Maceo Parker, a gifted jazz saxophonist who used to back up James Brown. 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 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 and life lasting price. Armstrong created a legacy that will stand for greed and ruthlessness, in its own way as lasting as Bernie Madoff’s.
Every organization whether in sports, business, academia, or government has rules. But they’re enforced retroactively, after the damage is 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 don’t see a champion but instead 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, though, for him, not the one he ever contemplated.