Lance Armstrong’s brand of sports villainy is complex and unique

We were out on our feet, jet-lagged beyond belief, when we arrived at the check-in desk of Marriott Champs Elysees. In the secret code of sportswriters – who, in normal times, log so many nights in so many Courtyards, Fairfields and Residence Inns from Pittsburgh to Plattsburgh to Portland – this one always generates a knowing smile.

This has long been one of the pay-off addresses.

Of course, even in the most colorful brochures they couldn’t possibly have advertised what my wife and I sleep-walked into on July 24, 2005. We’d made our reservations many months earlier to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, careful to avoid conflicts with the many sporting events that clutter my calendar — World Series, Super Bowl, Final Four. The Tour de France wasn’t one on the radar.

And yet there it was, all around us, a crush of humanity. This was the final day of the race. The leaders were due soon. We were told we could observe from a choice spot in the hotel’s concierge lounge, but once we dumped our bags, we figured we should take part in the outdoor festivities.

There were Americans bearing flags and locals wearing scowls – already there was plenty of talk that the race’s perennial star, Lance Armstrong, wasn’t on the level. Mostly, though, near our corner of the street, there was a small group of female friends who had been weeping the entire time. They all wore plastic yellow wristbands. And they craned their necks to get a better view.

Soon, there was Armstrong. And the crying friends began to squeal, and one, with a floppy painter’s hat on her head, lifted her voice to the passing yellow blur.

“LANCE!” she yelled once, twice, 10 times. “YOU SAVED MY LIFE! YOU SAVED MY LIFE!! YOU SAVED MY LIIIIIIIIFE!!!”

And that, of course, has always been the core of the turmoil raging in, around, and about Armstrong. Sunday, as a follow-up to the cultural phenomenon that was “The Last Dance,” ESPN will broadcast the first of a two-part “30-for-30” documentary on Armstrong, who isn’t merely the most polarizing athlete of our time, but one of the most divergent public figures ever born.

For weeks we have revived and resuscitated the Michael vs. LeBron debate, which is always a fun parlor game because sports, at its core, is always rife with rebuttal: best basketball team of all time? Best baseball stadium of all time? Best play-by-play man of all time? Best game you ever saw in person? On TV? Heard on the radio? Followed on your phone?

It is endless and it is wonderful and it is always – or at least 99.9 percent of the time – perfectly pointless. There is nothing real to be gained or lost on either side of an issue.

Lance Armstrong is the exception. In every way.

On the one hand, he was – almost without question – the biggest scoundrel in the history of competitive sports. He not only cheated, he was defiant about his cheating. He not only went to great lengths to defend himself, but in doing so he left a trail of ruin and dust in his wake, coldly, and without a shred of conscience, destroying anyone who stood in his way. Because of him, one of the stars of the Tour de France record book is the slash, used to as great an effect as the asterisk normally is. As in:

1999: Lance Armstrong

2000: Lance Armstrong

2001: Lance Armstrong

It is a gross legacy.

And yet, just as true about Armstrong is this: those yellow wristbands. Armstrong started Livestrong in 1997, not long after recovering from testicular cancer. And there has never been a phenomenon quite like it. The numbers are staggering enough: over a half-billion dollars raised. Over 100,000 cancer patients served, many of whom didn’t have the resources to fight on their own. Eighty million of those wristbands sold.

The bigger impact, though, is profoundly anecdotal. Cancer affects everyone: directly, indirectly, family, friends, neighbors. It doesn’t discriminate and it doesn’t play favorites, and we all know people for whom that yellow wristband was more than just a symbol, and for whom Armstrong was more than just a spokesman.

For them, he was hope. He was proof. He was inspiration. In a person’s darkest hours, they reach out for the final few things available they can believe in. And for so many, Armstrong was one of those things. He couldn’t cure them, no. But he could comfort. And he did. There is no question about that. He did.

Are these off-setting qualities? There’s no way to achieve consensus on that. Some survivors surely felt betrayed when Armstrong’s doping and his deceit were exposed. For many others? The truth was difficult. But their very existence, the opportunity to feel anything, was also testimony of a greater good.

No. There has never been another quite like Armstrong, a one-man tug-of-war, a solo symphony of conflict and complexity. “The Last Dance” is over. Must-see TV on Sundays is most certainly not.

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