Lance Armstrong is one of America’s greatest sports heroes. He won seven Tour de France titles, battled cancer, and retired at 35 to focus on his famous Livestrong cancer foundation that contributes millions of dollars to cancer survivors and research.
However, Armstrong’s recent choice not to contest doping charges brought against him tarnished his image in the eyes of many, although he still has staunch defenders that believe he never took performance enhancing drugs. With the nation still coming to terms with this development that strips him of all his medals won since 1998 and bans him from the sport for life, here’s a look back on the decorated career of a cycling legend.
Armstrong’s career began when he won the IronKids Triathlon at age 13. Already a natural athlete as a child, he was involved in team sports, running, and swimming, but enjoyed bicycling the most. He started training with the U.S. Olympic cycling developmental team in high school, and won many big competitions as a teen including the First Union Grand Prix and the U.S. National Amateur Champion title.
Armstrong turned professional at age 21, joining the Motorola cycling team. His first few races were not remarkable but respectable, and included his first Tour DuPont. He placed second in the World Cup in 1992, and the next year won the U.S. Professional Championship.
In 1993, Armstrong competed in his first Tour de France – one of the most difficult races in the world. It spans three weeks and nearly 3,000 miles through difficult mountainous terrain in the French countryside. He did not finish the race, but he did win the World Road Race Championship that took place later that year. In 1996 he participated in the Olympic games for the second time.
While at the peak of his career, Armstrong received devastating news that he had cancer. Testicular cancer had spread to his brain and lungs and his chances for survival were bleak. He moved forward with treatment that included surgeries, chemotherapy, and a drastic change in his eating habits. His high-paying contracts were canceled but he still hoped to race again.
To many people’s surprise, Armstrong made a complete recovery from cancer and founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation to aid in cancer research and recovery for those affected by cancer. His yellow “Livestrong” bracelets became a common accessory on the wrists of fans, cancer eradication advocates, and even casual supporters.
In 1998, Armstrong returned to racing. He didn’t return a champion, but slowly began to see results. His first race in particular seemed to seal his fate when he had to pull to the side of the road and quit in a wet and cold Paris-Nice competition. But he kept trying in subsequent races.
In 1999, to the surprise of everyone, he not only finished the Tour de France, he won it, making him an international hero and inspiration to other cyclists and cancer survivors everywhere.
The rest of Armstrong’s story is history, or was until his recent substance abuse charges. After 1999, he won six more Tour de France titles – the most anyone has ever won, and has been awarded virtually every other major sports honor in his sport. He retired in 2005, but came back to compete in the 2008 Tour de France race, and the then 34-year-old placed third.
Armstrong bikes in many charity competitions, such as the 3,500 mile U.S. Tour of Hope; participates in other sports competitions like the NYC marathon; and has been granted such titles as Time’s 100 Most Influential People and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.
In 2012, after years of fighting doping allegations, the champion decided not to fight anymore, though he had never actually failed a drug test. As a result, Armstrong was stripped him of all of his medals from 1998 on, including the seven Tour de France titles he fought so hard for.
Armstrong still claims he did not take illegal substances, and that his decision to surrender fighting the charges was made because he was tired of the “witch hunt” against him. If he hadn’t voluntarily relinquished his 14 years of career accomplishments, however,witnesses, including former teammates, would have come forward in a hearing, supposedly with stories of a team-wide conspiracy complete with mid-race blood transfusions, undercover vehicles bringing blood bags, and doctors, trainers, and teammates all sworn to secrecy.
The scandal does not erase the fact that Armstrong battled cancer and made a victorious comeback, and raised $500 million for cancer research through his foundation. Many of his fans, however, have felt like their hero has let them down. Some still believe in him, bringing up the fact that there’s no physical evidence and his witnesses have something to gain. Still others think all of the other cyclists were doping too, so targeting him was unwarranted.
It’s good to remember that even if he didn’t dope, Armstrong is just another imperfect human like everyone else. Whatever the case, his career was amazing, and his fight against cancer admirable.