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A Certain Cyclist You Might Know Is Aiming For Some Public Image Redemption

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We learned last year that Lance fatigue is a real thing for people in Texas, especially those in Austin, who went through the entire roller coaster of emotions as Lance went from an inspirational hero to a disgraced doper. 

But the fact that Armstrong was once such a highly-regarded figure who fell from grace so publicly holds a lot of appeal to a public that loves redemption narratives. We love to raise people to “hero” status, we love the drama of watching them fall, and at some point—when we’ve seen them debased enough—we like to see them come back. That’s especially true in sports, where on-field success is often treated as shorthand for personal redemption. It runs contrary to our sensibilities that a bad person would be great at something we collectively adore, and so we feel compelled to adjust our perception of that person’s morals to match the glory we see on the field. 

The editors at Outside magazine saw an opportunity in Armstrong’s absence from the limelight, inviting him to participate in a joke-y viral video as part of their “How To Do Everything” series. The video shows Armstrong, ostensibly working in a bike shop somewhere, demonstrating how to change a punctured innertube on a bicycle. And following the video’s success and the subsequent public outcry, the magazine posted an explanation by editor Christopher Keyes of its relationship with the disgraced cyclist:

For as long as I’ve been at the magazine, Outside has routinely been accused of milking Lance Armstrong’s popularity—and, eventually, his ruin—for our own gain. Indeed, the man has been on no fewer than ten Outside covers. If you want to know why a person keeps ending up on a magazine’s cover year after year, whether it’s Muhammad Ali on Sports Illustrated or George Clooney on Esquire, here’s a not-so-surprising answer: they sell newsstand copies. Lance Armstrong was the most bankable cover subject Outside has ever had this side of Mount Everest. We put him on the cover because he was immensely popular. We were somewhat comforted by the fact that Armstrong was also an endlessly fascinating persona—a legitimate story—but after a while, showcasing him involved some internal hand-wringing. We knew we were “enabling the cult of Lance,” as my predecessor Hal Espen once explained in The Atlantic.

When I arrived at Outside in 2006, Armstrong had already retired. Even so, I was no better at resisting the lure of a guaranteed seller. I put him on the cover in December of that year. (I held out for five months!) For that story, and for another Outside cover pegged to his 2008 comeback, I interviewed Armstrong at his home in Austin, Texas. I also met him at our group cover shoot in Los Angeles for Outside’s 30th Anniversary issue.

While Armstrong was a useful figure for the magazine, Keyes found him personally distasteful—something that could be echoed by a number of people, from Sheryl Crow to the bouncer at La Zona Rosa. But what Keyes really seems to be wrestling with, in his long justification of Outside‘s history of covering Lance, is whether remdemption is actually possible for him. Is he worthy of our forgiveness?

It’s a question we’ve been asking almost since the day he fell from grace, and while the answer doesn’t really tell us much about Lance Armstrong, it does tell us a lot about who we, as a culture, choose to forgive—and who we don’t. 

Keyes seems to think we can. Writing about the experience of having lunch with Armstrong after the video shoot, Keyes offers a sympathetic depiction of the athlete:

Armstrong also talked about his doping, which, no matter how much time has passed since his confession, still sounds surreal when it comes out of his mouth. What else? His ego was still there. He’d lost some money settling the lawsuits, but he didn’t appear to be broke, as some have speculated. He still seemed a little fixated on settling old scores. Mostly, however, the takeaway from our lunch—and everyone present has said the same thing—was that he projected a sense of sadness that seemed heavy and genuine.

It’s this sadness, along with a newfound degree of humility, that I noticed most when we filmed our videos. You don’t have to watch very closely to see it. People say that living with fame magnifies the worst attributes in a person. That was certainly the case with Armstrong. But what about living with infamy? I’ve never met another person who has fallen so far. I believe Armstrong will someday have a role again fighting cancer as a survivor—the one part of his bio that has always been true—and possibly even helping to clean up cycling. But it’s his experience living as someone who was once beloved and now reviled that makes me still curious to see what he has to say.

A cocky, defiant Armstrong could never be redeemed, but a contrite, self-effacing one, who wears his shame on his face and just wants to have a role in public life might. 

Armstrong is in a unique position, though, in that he’s essentially the public face of his sport, at least in the U.S.—and because his story isn’t just about a great cyclist, but also about a figure who battled cancer and won, and went on to start a foundation that continues to do good work despite the albatross of his name tied inexorably to the words “live strong.” As a result, the betrayal that people felt when the truth about Armstrong’s doping was magnified—he didn’t just win, he inspired us—but so is the interest in seeing him come back. A disgraced athlete like Jose Canseco or Pete Rose or Mike Tyson—or even Tiger Woods—was, in the end, just an athlete. Lance Armstrong’s accomplishments went far beyond the bike. He had farther to fall, but there are also more avenues for him to rise. 

But “redemption” is a silly word to keep using, because nothing will ever change the fact that he cheated, and—for reasons including, but not limited to, his lifetime ban—he’ll never get the chance to acquit himself as an athlete. And that’s the most common path to what we call “redemption” for athletes, but which really is just our collective desire to focus on their most recent accomplishments instead of their less-recent disgrace. The narrative around Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, twice accused of rape, shifted during the 2010 season, when he led the team to the Super Bowl. (Actual USA Today headline after Roethlisberger’s 226-yard, two-touchdown playoff performance: “Roethlisberger’s redemption continues with big win.”) Ray Lewis closed out his career with a Super Bowl win, capping his legacy as “on-field hero” rather than “accused murderer.” 

Armstrong isn’t going to have that avenue open to him as he seeks a facelift, but even if the lifetime ban weren’t in place, he wouldn’t be able to hop back on the bike and prove that he’d overcome his sins. An athlete can earn “redemption” for off-field decisions by performing well on field, but if an athlete’s violations are against the game itself, it’s a tougher road. When you sin against the sport, you can’t redeem yourself through feats of athletics, because we’ve already seen that your accomplishments in that arena can’t be trusted. 

What that means for Armstrong, ultimately, is that if he ever wants to receive any measure of public redemption—and the story in Outside suggests that he’d like that—it will be because he actually did something valuable to society, not because he accomplished anything as an athlete. In other words, he’ll have to actually earn it, not just offer a compelling distraction from his transgressions.

Of course, if anyone is in a position to earn that kind of redemption, it probably is Lance Armstrong. He built his public image around things that were legitimately valuable off of the bike—the LiveStrong Foundation, the inspiration he provided to people who faced a cancer diagnosis—and he could feasibly provide something in that vein to the world again. None of that means that he’ll ever occupy the position he did before the allegations about him were proven to be true, but redemption—if there is such a thing—is a process of trying, not a threshold through which a person walks. If Armstrong decides to commit himself to trying, there’ll be no yellow jersey at the end, but that’s just how we’ll know it’s worth considering in the first place. 

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

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