Last month, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) banned Lance Armstrong from cycling for life and stripped him of his titles from 1999 to the present, including his seven Tour de France wins. The USADA charged Armstrong with violating anti-doping rules by using a cornucopia of banned substances and practices, including "EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, cortisone and HGH." Armstrong decided not to continue to fight the USADA charges after a judge ruled the USADA did, in fact, have jurisdiction because Armstrong signed an earlier arbitration agreement over the charges.
The reaction to the Armstrong saga reminded me of the 2008 movie Doubt, set in 1964. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays popular priest Father Flynn, whose ideas run afoul of Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep. Amy Adams plays a young nun, Sister James, who presents Sister Aloysius with an incident involving the priest and an altar boy. The film revolves around the doubt introduced through this incident. Is the priest who he says he is, or is his relationship with the altar boy inappropriate? I distinctly remember discussing this movie with a friend of mine. Both of us saw the same movie, heard the same lines, evaluated the same evidence. One of us came away with the strong conviction that Father Flynn was innocent and the other came away with an equally strong belief in the priest's guilt. How did we see the same thing and come to such diametrically opposite conclusions?
This is the thread I see woven through the Lance Armstrong controversy. There are some people who are absolutely convinced of Armstrong's guilt. To them, Armstrong becomes just the latest in a growing line of disgraced heroes, from Mark McGwire to Barry Bonds to Sammy Sosa to Roger Clemens to Floyd Landis to Bartolo Colón to, well, the list keeps going. To them, Armstrong belongs in this disgraced Cheaters Hall of Shame.
To others, Armstrong's saga is one of an embattled hero fighting impossible odds. His status as athlete extraordinaire is buttressed by his identity as a cancer survivor and philanthropist. Sally Jenkins, in the Washington Post, put it this way, "First of all, Lance Armstrong is a good man. There's nothing that I can learn about him short of murder that would alter my opinion on that." Her opinion is clearly stated in the headline of her piece, "Lance Armstrong doping campaign exposes USADA's hypocrisy." As evidence, she presents a quote from the judge in the USADA case, wondering what that agency's real motives were behind their efforts to bring down Armstrong.
Which brings me back to Doubt. Sister Aloysius didn't like Father Flynn, so she was predisposed to believe him guilty. Sister James was predisposed to like him, so she believed his explanations. Was he innocent or guilty? The movie never settled the question and left viewers to struggle with the title of the movie. By removing himself from further hearings, Armstrong has done the same thing. The public is left to struggle with their own doubt regarding his guilt or innocence.
Armstrong lost in a court of law but appears to be banking on the court of public opinion. Those who like and admire Armstrong have held on to their belief in his innocence. Donations to Armstrong's Livestrong organization jumped the day after the announcement. According to CBS News, the editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine says of the posts on the magazine's online forums, "95 percent of them are pro-Lance people, communicating their support for him." Anti-Lance people will hold on just as tightly to their belief that he's just one more of the win-at-all-costs crowd that has tainted the reputation and contaminated the purity of sports.
Is he innocent? Is he guilty? Perhaps, in that place of reasonable doubt, where a person stands says more about the person passing judgment than it does the person accused. A struggle with doubt is, by necessity, a struggle with faith. In this chapter, that faith is in Lance Armstrong.