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Column: Why I still believe in Lance Armstrong

Having come to know the controversial cycling superstar, former Clare hurler Tony Griffin says he does not feel let down by the ‘human, flawed’ Armtrong.

Tony Griffin

Former All Star hurler Tony Griffin got to know seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong through his charity work. And the Clareman — who runs the Soar Foundation — says it doesn’t matter to him if the controversial American doped during his cycling career. Here’s why:

At the gates of his home we met Armstrong, about to tackle the morning school run. He rolled his window down, shot us a smile, we shook hands and he welcomed us to Austin. In the back seat were his twin daughters, one of whom was teary. ’She’s upset to have to leave her piglet behind’, he explained. ‘See ya’ll in five.’ When he arrived back I thanked him for agreeing to spend time with us.
‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘We did a good background check on you. By the way, how come you hurlers don’t get paid?’ I decided to tackle that one as we rolled out on to the sun-drenched Austin roads for our bike ride. As we set off I caught Lance staring at our bikes, which we had rented earlier that morning at a downtown Austin bike store. Chris Brewer, Armstrong’s close friend, had picked us up at the airport and when we told him that the bike company Trek had not returned our emails or calls he encouraged us to rent a particular brand of bike that Armstrong disliked.
Finally Lance broke the silence, ‘Where d’you get those pieces of crap?

‘This is all we have’, I said. ‘Trek won’t return our calls.’ He turned to Bart Knaggs. ‘Remind me to talk to Trek.’

The wheels were moving, and later that week two new Treks were on their way to Halifax, one for our ride and one to act as backup should I crash. Their combined cost was $15,000.

- Taken from Screaming at the Sky by Tony Griffin with TJ Flynn

I HAVE BEEN asked several times if I have been disappointed by Lance Armstrong since news broke that he was handed a lifetime ban from sport, having chosen not to contest charges brought against him by the US Anti-Doping Agency.

I travelled to the slopes of Alps to watch the 2005 Tour de France fly by in a splash of colour and to study this loud Texan called Lance Armstrong on his way to winning his sixth Tour. Two years later this was the man from whom I would often draw inspiration after I decided to cycle 7000km across Canada in my father’s memory.

He kept me focused on a daily basis as I trained through the Canadian winter in a small laboratory in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You see, back in 2007 when he became an integral supporter of that cycle, we decided to donate $225,000 to Livestrong to be spent on researching a cure to cancer. In a way that began as Lance Armstrong persuading Trek to agree to sponsor the 7000km Ride for the Cure grew into a three-year journey of cycling, fundraising, dreaming culminating in sampling Austin each September for the annual Livestrong Challenge to celebrate the result of another year’s fundraising.

Did I feel let down by the news that Lance Armstrong was not going to contest the charges made against him? The answer is no.

But there were more questions; If Lance Armstrong was to have doped did I not feel let down by him? The answer is no.

This could be explained by my making a perfect hero out of this man but if you look beyond the hero, as I do in this article you will see that my assertions above are not due to being blinded by hero worshipping. The answer is much more complex and much simpler than that depending on your personal view and how you choose to look at it. The ying and yang of life.

What I am about to write may appear that I am sitting on the fence but if read in the spirit with which it is intended you will see what I am saying strikes to the heart of us all.

What defines who we really are?

I am not out to convince anyone. I am merely speaking my truth. If Lance Armstrong did use performance enhancing drugs I would not think any less of the MAN. Do I condone doping in sport? Of course not but I capitalise the word man because for me our identities are not as simple as athlete, actor, artist, comedian, bricklayer, whatever label you want to attach. If Lance did dope I would say ‘Man, you should have come out and been straight with people’ but I wouldn’t think any less of the man. And here is why.

Tony Griffin shows Armstrong what a sliothar is in Austin. Pci: Tony Griffin.

Imperfect – Imperfect – Human

Lance is like the rest of us. Imperfect.  Flawed. Human. The time I spent with him left me respecting the man but also realising that someone this driven and determined would make a wonderful friend but a ruthless enemy. Perhaps this is what made him so successful on the bike.  Perhaps that’s what was driving his legs when he looked back at Jan Ulrich, his crucifix dangling round his neck and went for it.

Perhaps this carried him through his fight with cancer when doctors told him to prepare for death. It was this shadow side of his fight with cancer, the gift of the painful experience, that grit and ruthlessness, which at times threatened to consume him and those closest to him. The selfishness of an elite athlete and the caring of a cancer survivor; an unlikely mixture.

You see, that morning I spent in Austin with Lance, his daughter was crying because she could not bring her little piggy to school. And I saw the caring side of the man. The side that became visibly upset when he heard a woman had been killed on the same stretch of road a few days before we cycled it together that day in Austin.

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I look at Lance Armstrong and see two people; I see the cyclist and I see the man. And I admire the man and what he endeavoured to do with his fame. Many see it as ego, I choose to see it as someone who cares about people who are suffering. I see two people. I see the layers of identity and it is never as simple as any one thing defining you in its entirety.

Father

A memory: a woman from Nova Scotia calls me and asks can I have Lance write to her husband who is in a raging battle with cancer. Lance is his hero. Several days later that man receives a hand-written letter telling him that no matter what don’t give up. A year later I meet that woman. Her two year old daughter is clinging to her leg, crying.

Her daddy has died. The woman whispers to me through her own tears that that letter had given her husband great comfort.

Armstrong means something to cancer sufferers that only those who have battled the disease can understand. In the midst of the fear, in the eye of the chemotherapy-fuelled storm Lance was a sign of hope. He was a living embodiment that the disease could be beaten. Not only beaten, but having overcome it and gone on to tell his story, have a family, build a life, he was evidence you could go on to thrive.

My own father drew strength from this. You may love or hate Lance Armstrong, you may not know why you carry those feelings but what you must accept is that he was a signal of hope for many. A lighthouse beaming the possibility of survival across an anxious and fretful sea. It is this part of Lance Armstrong that I believe in. It is this part to his identity that means I do not and will not feel let down by the very human, flawed Texan.

Tony Griffin presenting the Texan with a cheque for the Livestrong Foundation. Pic: Tony Griffin.

The Truth

Apart from those closest to Lance only he himself really knows if he used performance enhancing substances on his way to winning those seven Tours. And it is always the truth we meet when we turn out the lights at night that is the fiercest judge. Truth can’t be dissected or alchemically transformed in to something it is not. You can try and tell yourself anything you want to make yourself feel better but ultimately your heart knows the truth. And evading it can feel like a self-imposed prison.

I was reminded of this lately when I heard an interview with Tyler Hamilton — the baby faced assassin of the Tour de France. He spoke of his utter relief, the feeling of a suffocating weight being lifted from his narrow elite-cyclist shoulders when he admitted he had used performance enhancing substances. If Lance did use, he knows the truth.

If he didn’t, then the truth will be enough in his quiet moments to set him free.

Tony Griffin is an athlete, charity activist, speaker and author. He is a former All-Star hurler with Clare, who now does extensive charity work for organisations such as SOAR. In 2010, he released his authobiography ‘Screamin At The Sky’.


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