IT WASN'T that many years ago when those yellow rubber wristbands were everywhere. They were the celebration of a sporting event people did not care about and, at the same time, the celebration of a story they grew to love. But now, one part of the story might be fiction - that is, if some of Lance Armstrong's former teammates are to be believed.
And what if it is? What happens then? What happens to the greatest work of the man's life?
The spokesperson answered quickly:
"We appreciate you reaching out to us. It's business as usual at Livestrong, where we are focused on our mission to serve people affected by cancer and empower them to take action against the world's leading cause of death."
It was the morning after the night before, when the CBS show "60 Minutes" broadcast the latest damning allegations. Tyler Hamilton, a former Armstrong teammate, went on camera and said Armstrong not only took performance-enhancing drugs, but also encouraged others on his team to do so.
It is not the first allegation. A grand jury in Los Angeles has been doing the subpoena thing for months. "60 Minutes" also reported that another teammate, George Hincapie, implicated Armstrong in PED use in his grand jury testimony.
Armstrong's people have responded by calling Hamilton a liar looking for a book deal, and pointing to the 500 doping tests Armstrong has passed. They also have said they think that "the statements attributed to Hincapie are inaccurate and that the reports of his testimony are unreliable." For his part, Hincapie said he does not know where "60 Minutes" got its information.
This is obviously not over, not nearly. But where there's smoke, well, there's smoke. And the risk is that Livestrong, the foundation that grew out of Armstrong's efforts and his celebrity and his story - from cancer survivor to seven-time winner of the Tour de France - will be somehow obscured by it all.
"Nothing will deter or distract us from our crucially important work of supporting cancer survivors. The foundation is thriving and helping more people than ever."
This is not your garden-variety sports scandal, involving performance-enhancing drugs that created outsized sporting accomplishments (along with outsized muscles). This is different from Barry Bonds, different from Mark McGwire, different from Marion Jones. We have been there and we have done that, and many of us have pretty much exhausted whatever capacity for outrage we once possessed.
This is different. We are not merely talking about what comes after the first comma in a celebrated athlete's obituary. We are talking about the work of that athlete, about a charitable endeavor that was birthed upon his inspiring story and that has grown to become one of the largest cancer-related charities in the country.
None of us can pretend to know what is true or false regarding Armstrong and doping, although the cynics in the crowd decided a long time ago. That isn't even what this is about, another sporting morality play we have all already seen too many times.
For me, it has become a kind of sport - not so much the taking down of famous athletes, like ducks in a shooting gallery, because that has become too easy. Instead, the fun is in puncturing the pompous and the righteous, especially in baseball, who are more than happy to take down the famous handful while sweeping aside the context that hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of others did the exact same thing.
But this isn't about one man anymore, or about his dirty sport, or about the hundreds and hundreds of others.
"In the past year, the number of donors giving to our mission has increased, which is especially remarkable in a tough economy. We recently surpassed the $400 million mark in total funds raised for the fight against cancer since the organization began in 1997."
The power of celebrity in our culture is often derided, and for good reason. We chase the famous, and we imitate them, and we overinflate them, and then we dispose of them. It doesn't take long.
But Lance Armstrong was different. He used his celebrity for something greater. That $400 million figure does not come close to stating the economic impact Livestrong has had, when you consider the attention it brought to the disease - and the government and other funding that followed that attention.
He inspired people on an individual level, people fighting against a terrible disease, and he created this great charitable edifice as well. But what if the fuel for his celebrity was enriched by deceit? The great cause is still great and the good works are still good - but what happens if another grand jury brings another indictment against another sporting icon?
At this point, most people would yawn. But the yellow wristbands make this one different. *
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