Lance the survivor vs. Lance the cyclist

Jennifer Imsande
Jennifer Imsande: Which Lance do we believe?
Photo courtesy Jennifer Imsande

Jennifer Imsande, a former professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is pursuing a degree in creative writing from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Pequot Lakes and is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.

So Lance Armstrong has finally confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs. Prior to this, the question everyone asked was, Did he? ("I bet he did." "He couldn't have." "He wouldn't have.") Now that he's confirmed the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's ruling, partisans at the water cooler are circling in an argument that looks something like this:

"He gave help and hope to millions of individuals with cancer."

"That doesn't outweigh the doping, the deception, the destruction of lives."

"He's still an American hero."

"Are you nuts?"

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We're so busy establishing whether his philanthropic efforts outweigh his deceit that we don't ask the question whose answer might actually, meaningfully change how we live out the rest of our day.

That question is: Which Lance do we believe?

You don't have to be a cyclist, athlete, or individual with cancer for the answer to matter. You just need to be someone who, right now, is trying to do something or survive something against the odds. You just need to be someone who is at an edge, whether created by loss or disease, say, or retirement, divorce, a professional opportunity or a personal one.

One of the Lances survived cancer. The statistics said he should have been a goner. This Lance says, believe with everything you've got that those Big Forces you're facing are not as big as you think. Not only will you survive, but you will go on to do great things and inspire others by your example.

And this was the genesis of Livestrong's powerful message. Cancer doesn't determine your destiny. You do.

Armstrong was the perfect message carrier. He embodied rebelliousness and independence. No one, I mean no one, he seemed to be saying every time he smiled for the cameras, tells me what to do. This disposition puts him in the tradition of those who have counseled us to cultivate self-reliance, to stubbornly refuse to submit to a herd mentality. Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and Einstein all agreed that we cannot let others' opinions or past wisdom limit us.

But there was the other guy, the cyclist. His message is that the human spirit is no match for what the community is saying or doing. If cycling has been infected by dope, you've only one option. Become a doper.

The tragedy is that Lance the cyclist believed in peer pressure and didn't believe the message of Lance the cancer survivor.

But to return to those of us at the water cooler.

We might not have an opinion on whether the USADA should lift its lifetime ban on Armstrong competing. We might not have an opinion on how to curtail the influence of performance-enhancing drugs, or whether we should even try. We might not have an opinion on Livestrong's future.

But we should have an opinion on which Lance is real to us. Even if we're not currently at our edge personally or professionally, we will be someday. It's inevitable. And the edge is a place where there doesn't seem to be a way forward or back. When we are at that place, Lance the cancer survivor might be able to help us hang on through the worst. If we choose to believe Lance the cyclist, we're done for.