Lance ArmstrongI was a Lance Armstrong fan. I respected him for being a great athlete, cancer survivor and philanthropist. I read his book, “It’s Not About the Bike,” (good book, bad title). I wore my LIVESTRONG t-shirt — hot pink with yellow letters — and of course wore the yellow plastic LIVESTRONG band around my wrist.

I followed his story on and off the bike. I watched him introduce the nominations for 2005 Record of the Year at the Grammy’s with Sheryl Crow—she wore a yellow dress. I intuitively and passionately defended him in casual conversations with friends, using the same defense he used. “If he was cheating, why hadn’t he been caught?”

I no longer wear my hot-pink LIVESTRONG shirt. I remember picking it out of my drawer a few months ago to put it on, then folding it back up and choosing another.  I put it back because I was disappointed – not because Lance Armstrong doped — but because he was a dream wrecker. He intentionally built a false dream and allowed it, even fostered it, to get bigger than him knowing it wasn’t true.

As a parent, I know I can tell a few white lies, but I can never promise a child something that I damn well know I will not deliver. That is what Lance did. He made promises that he didn’t keep. As my three-year old daughter says when someone says something mean, “It hurts my heart.” Lance hurt our hearts.

But, to be honest, I’m sort of sick of Lance Armstrong. I don’t really care if he is granted permission to run in the Boston marathon when he’s 50 or if he doped in the Tour de France in 2009 or 2010 – allegations he denied in his “confession” to Oprah last week. But, what his story has made me care about is all the people, during the Armstrong era, who did the right thing — the people who followed something that is becoming lost in mainstream society – something called integrity.

Travis Tygart

Travis Tygart

There are many whose stories we may never hear, but there are two whose stories are worth sharing. The first is Travis Tygart, the Director of USADA, who according to 60 Minutes continued to pursue the investigation of Armstrong when others had given up. The evidence collected by Tygart and USADA is credited as the final factor that forced Armstrong to stop fighting the allegations against him and thus forfeit his title, lose his sponsorships, step down from his charity and ultimately confess his sins to Oprah Winfrey as a reported 28 million people watched worldwide.

While pushing the investigation of Armstrong, Tygart underwent extensive criticism. Some called his pursuit a “vendetta” while others called it a “witch hunt.” But, Tygart persisted, even when, according to 60 Minutes, the CEO of the LIVESTRONG foundation lobbied against USADA before Congress. Members of Congress and 23 California State Representatives called for an investigation of  USADA’s practices and its taxpayer funding. Despite the pressure, Tygart pushed on with the investigation.

On 60 Minutes Scott Pelley asked Tygart about the risks he took in pursuing the case. Tygart responded:

“If we [USADA] were unwilling to take this case and help this sport….then we’re here for naught. We should shut down. And if they want to shut us down for doing our job on behalf of clean athletes and the integrity of competition, then shut us down.”

Later in the same interview, Pelley asked Tygart what would have happened if the outcome had been reverse—if Lance Armstrong had prevailed and Tygart’s investigation had failed? Tygart responded:

“It would have been huge, because athletes would have known that some are too big to fail. [It sends the message that you can] cheat your way to the top. And if you get too big, and too popular and too powerful—if you do it that well, you’ll never held accountable.”

Tygart, like many, could have bowed to the pressure and dropped the case. And at times it may have seemed that continuing the investigation would cost him his job and his credibility. Yet, he followed his integrity and uncovered the truth about Lance Armstrong – even amongst reported death threats.

Other heroes in what journalists are calling this “epic saga” are those athletes who, despite the pressure and what everyone else was doing, rode clean. One such athlete was Telluride native, 1992 Olympic cyclist and 1997 USPS team member Scott Mercier. Mercier quietly left the sport in 1997, with a contract for the next season on the table, because he didn’t want to dope. He vividly remembers a pivotal incident in which the team doctor gave him vials and pills for a two-week training block.

Mercier says the team doctor told him, “No racing [during the two weeks]…..for sure you test positive, but you go strong like bull.”

Mercier never took the pills or vials, but instead finished the season clean then left the sport of cycling. It wasn’t until 2011, after reading an interview with Floyd Landis (who rode with USPS from 2002 to 2004 then won the Tour de France in 2006 as the Captain of Phonak Hearing System Team), when Mercier started speaking publicly of his experience. Landis had said the choice for riders was “to cheat or be cheated.” For some reason, those words propelled Mercier to talk about another choice, the choice that he took – to follow your integrity and do what you think is right. He says he didn’t want people to think you didn’t have a choice.

Scott Mercier

Scott Mercier

Mercier admits that leaving the sport he loved wasn’t easy, and that he often thinks about how good he could’ve been and what he might have done. He admits that he didn’t say not to PEDs because he was scared of health consequences, but instead because he didn’t want to lie to his family and friends. And when the Armstrong case broke, just in the last few months, he recalls a phone call from his wife in which she said, “Aren’t you glad you’re not coming home tonight to sit your kids down and tell them that daddy lied and cheated?”

Mercier recently spoke at the Telluride Mountain School and Telluride Public Schools, only four days before the Oprah interview aired and before being invited, then appearing, on CNN with Brooke Baldwin and the Today Show with Lester Holt.

To Lance I say, “Good luck.” To folks like Tygart and Mercier I say, “Thanks for reminding us what integrity is,” and in the words of my three-year old, “for making our hearts happy.”


1 Comment
  • Clint Viebrock
    Posted at 07:37h, 28 January

    Jesse, what a beautiful story. I also defended Lance long after more realistic friends had conceded he had cheated and lied about it. I don’t need my heroes on pedestals, but I do believe we need heroes. Cheating to win is not a trait of a hero. Thanks for the redemptive stories of Tygart and Mercier.