Telling stories

An open letter to someone I used to admire:

In his early 20s my brother Darrius was one of the next big things in middle-distance running and had more than a very good shot at the Athens 2004 Olympic team.

Then he was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease. He had to undergo weeks of daily radiotherapy and chemo to kill off the cancer in his lymphatic system.

When my brother was first diagnosed, like for many sportspeople challenged by cancer, it was you who was there at his bedside. It was you that kept him company in the waiting room as he sat in line for his daily radiotherapy blast.

Your story was an inspiration for an athlete like him, and also for those around him looking for something positive to hold onto.

My brother’s cancer, I’m delighted to report, is now a long distant memory. But he never quite regained the sporting dominance he had once had.

Not like you did.

It’s Not About the Bike was an inspiration – perhaps even a life saver – for many cancer patients. Particularly athletes like him. He was given a copy by a fellow runner the day after he was diagnosed.

The momentum your story created, and the funding you raised, created a movement of sporty cancer battlers that has made a significant difference to the fight against the disease worldwide. For cyclists and those affected by cancer alike, you became a hero.

Only it wasn’t true, was it Lance?

Don’t get me wrong. I know all about the power of telling good stories.

I’ve worked as a writer for charities for the last ten years. We never lied, but of course we would select details to include according to what would do the job best. To persuade people to give, or volunteer, to support, or campaign.

But for you, Lance, being a cheat takes away the very foundations upon which your heroic story was built.

Your tacit admission to doping last weekend didn’t come as news to me. I’m a keen cyclist and an avid follower of the Tour. And I was definitely a fan. But I wasn’t so blinded by your story that I didn’t read others who’s versions weren’t quite so gushing.

I knew you could be a bit of a bully in the peloton. I knew you would bring the weight of your personality and influence down on anyone who openly criticised doping on the pro-circuit.

But I guess I believed the myths your natural Texan arrogance had helped you to build around yourself.

That you were the most tested athlete on the planet, and had never had a positive doping test. That the constant throwing around of drugs accusations could only undermine the sport we all loved. That sections of the media, particularly the French media, would love nothing more than to bring down an American champion.

What I guess I didn’t want to hear was that you were making large donations to the very governing body that was supposed to be impartially overseeing your cycling competition.

That you had the money and power in professional cycling to make positive tests disappear or become irrelevant. (A pre-dated prescription here, an induction into the circle of guilt there.)

That you could use the massive worldwide interest that your achievements generated as a way to foster a complicit silence among cycling’s hierarchy, and among fellow riders. That you helped to make other pro-cyclists feel they never had a chance against you and other dopers, unless they too joined in.

Your profile and achievements have raised so much for cancer treatment and research worldwide. Your Livestrong yellow has become synonymous with the battling of cancer, its significance in the United States probably usurping the colour of the Tour de France leaders’ jersey.

(You mean the jersey was yellow before the Livestrong armbands?)

Your story has done so much for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of cancer patients. With all that impact, what difference does a little cheating make?

But that sends us up some very steep hors catégorie ends-justify-the-means climbs, doesn’t it Lance?

When I was diagnosed with an inoperable, incurable brain tumour in April, I’m afraid I already knew your story wasn’t quite what you had made it out to be.

Even though cycling and brain tumours turn out to be two of the things that you and I have in common, it wasn’t It’s Not About the Bike that I turned to for reassurance. And I wouldn’t recommend your story now to other cyclists or athletes touched by cancer.

It has become no more than a fable. Like those from Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, or (for me) stories from religious traditions, your tale is certainly interesting, engaging, meaningful and inspirational. Even moral.

But it’s not true.

And when someone is your hero, Lance, truth really matters.


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