July 24, 2023

Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds were two of the greatest athletes in their sports. Both dominated, Armstrong on the bike and Bonds on the diamond. Both were blessed with great talent, and both worked hard to develop that talent to the max.

And both cheated.

Another thing they shared: they were both surrounded by other cheaters. In Armstrong’s case, probably every single rider in every Tour de France that he rode was cheating. We know that many baseball players in Bonds’ time also cheated – although, exceptionally, the one player to rival Bonds as the greatest of their time, Ken Griffey, Jr, did not cheat.

Both have been punished harshly for their cheating. Lance had all seven TdF titles stripped, and Bonds is unlikely to ever be voted into the Hall of Fame. This is true of a number of other top players of that era, such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa; their use of foreign substances let them have great careers, but neither will be enshrined in the Hall.

Many of Armstrong’s rivals also got nailed for cheating. Most received bans of several years, which was not career-ending but, given the time away from top-level competition, had that effect. Alberto Contador and Jan Ullrich are two of the top racers to have also been banned for drug cheating.

So, in short: both cheated, and neither was the lone cheater in their sport – not by a long shot. Bonds’ fellow cheaters are facing the same punishment he is, but Armstrong has been hammered far harder than any of his contemporaries. Why was that?

I have no doubt that had those who spent years coming after Armstrong had focused that same energy on other riders, they would have exposed more of the overall cheating – something everyone knew was going on. But Lance Armstrong was not only the best rider in the world, he was also the most arrogant about denying his cheating. He fought back against the charges and against the people who accused him. 

That included riders who once rode on his team.

Basically, Armstrong made himself a target because he let his pride overwhelm his common sense. Given the nature of pro cycling at that time, however, this wasn’t surprising. To be a top athlete always requires a strong ego, and the brutal nature of an event like the Tour de France – three weeks of sprinting, mountains, and long days of just slogging through a French summer – makes the need for self-belief paramount.

Lance was not only the best rider in the world, he knew it. He was also a Texan who had survived testicular cancer, so it’s not surprising that he’d have an over-sized view of himself. He knew he was cheating, but, by dang, he wasn’t going to let anyone say it out loud.

He was probably also pissed that he was the main focus of all the investigators when he and everyone else knew the cheating was universal. Yea, that’s going to grind your grits just a bit.

Not to mention that the investigations into his cheating were led by French authorities who probably were angry that a Yank was making their biggest national event his own personal playground. A Frenchman can go toe-to-toe with any Texan for arrogance and pride.

His downfall came when American authorities got involved, and that was probably because his main sponsors, the USPS, became afraid of the backlash that might come from giving millions of dollars to the world’s biggest sporting cheat (more accurately, since he asserts he only even took enough of the drugs as he needed to maintain a level playing field, unlike others who were desperate to get near his level at all, let’s call him the most successful cheat).

What if Lance had approached all this differently? Not attacked his attackers? Sent his manager to tell the sponsors the truth about drugs in cycling? Built support among the French people? Not been such an arrogant asshole? We know that Bonds’ case for the HoF has been undermined by him being such an unpleasant jerk during his time with the Giants. 

It seems that cheating to be the best when you are already the best but can only maintain it by cheating does a number on a person’s common sense.

But to look beyond the cheating and sports: what else can we say about the two men?

Barry Bonds, outside of baseball, is a big nothing. He has a foundation, and it has almost no money and does almost nothing. The following is from ProPublica:

Lance Armstrong, on the other hand, famously started Livestrong to advocate and fundraise for cancer research and to help those with cancer. Livestrong has raised and spent tens of millions over the years. Even in 2020, they raised over a million – and had big assets. Again, ProPublica:

Today, while Bonds is retirement – he tried coaching, but it didn’t seem to work out – Armstrong has a podcast, is currently doing a YouTube series on the Women’s Tour de France (co-hosted with two women), and rides in a variety of racing and fun formats. He long since parted ways with Livestrong, which is no longer able to match the heady days when he was an untainted rider but still working to carry on the intent of his efforts in founding the organization.

I’m a Los Angeles Dodgers fan. I believe Barry Bonds will burn in the same hell as Carlos Correa and José Altuve. Hank Aaron is still the all-time home run king. Willie Mays, without question, the greatest Giants player (followed by Buster Posey, who I can never bring myself to not admire). So my view is biased. I remain a Lance Armstrong fan because I believe he won on a level playing field: they all cheated. And no mattered how hard they cheated, they still couldn’t beat him.

Livestrong has saved lives. It has given huge hope to millions. Lance may be a jerk, but how many humans have left a legacy of the kind he has with his foundation? I find it hilarious how many people rage at him for cheating who don’t even own a freaking bicycle. But, as Kristofferson sang, “Everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on”. 

top image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay