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Monday, May 23, 2011
An open letter to Lance Armstrong

By Jeff MacGregor
ESPN.com

Mr. Armstrong,

I had a whole long thing worked out. Complicated. Nuanced. An arrow across time, it invoked Aquinas and Calvin and faith versus works, Christian scripture and Aristotle and Gandhi. It called down the ghosts of Morgan, Carnegie and Rockefeller and invoked the absolute morality of American ethicists from Ralph Waldo Emerson to P.T. Barnum. I threw it away.

Maybe this can save us instead. Maybe this can save us all:

Confess.

Did you see that Sunday stage of the Giro d'Italia? Mikel Nieve winning in the Dolomites? Man, it was brutal. The steeps those last few kilometers like climbing the walls of a prison, that 16 percent grade, impossible, switchbacks like he's riding a spiral staircase. Tough to watch, not knowing whether he's going to win or simply gasp and drop and die.

That's what we value most in our heroes, though, isn't it? The ability to exceed the rest of us. To risk. To do the hard thing. To show us what's possible. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, to erase the line between winning and dying.

Armstrong
Lance Armstrong's efforts have made him a spokesman for cancer research and survivors. That clout is at risk.

But you know that. And you know that's what you're up against.

Here, in the interest of full disclosure to readers beyond yourself, I'll pause to note that I've never met you. Nor have I ever spoken to you, on the record or off. I've swapped a handful of brief emails in the past few weeks with an e-ddress I believe is yours. If it is not -- if Global Lance Armstrong Worldwide Brands Incorporated has a boiler room full of pleasant emailers and tweeters and letter writers somewhere in Jaipur or Mumbai or Paramus, N.J., engaged to correspond with members of the jackal press like me -- I assume those emails still reflect your general thoughts. I offered that email address a chance to answer some questions for this column, and -- as of Monday, May 23 at 10 a.m. -- had received no reply.

So. "60 Minutes." And the counterattack. The synopsis from my colleague Bonnie D. Ford, whose work on the matter is wide and deep. A hard Sunday for everybody. But that peloton of lawyers is only going to carry you so far.

If you did wrong by the standards of the sport, you're running out of time. Once the indictments drop, this thing can't be fixed or walked back or forgotten. Livestrong and the good it does are then at grave risk. This might be your last chance to get in front of all this. Here's how.

Use the truth. Call a news conference. At the United Nations. Explain that cycling is corrupt from top to bottom, from east to west, always has been, and that "performance enhancement" is an open secret, winked at by the very bodies charged with oversight of the sport. That doping is about money and fame and has a hundred-year history in the Grand Tours and on the board tracks and that the rules of cycling -- and every other sport on Earth -- are antiquated, contradictory and hypocritical. And that you still beat 200 guys flat who were doped to the gills seven years running in the Tour de France. The playing field was level.

Let honesty be your defense. Confess your sins of pride or ambition or hubris, arrogance or selfishness or appetite, sure, but remind us that to pretend those human things don't exist in the world -- on Wall Street or Main Street or the final approach to the Alpe d'Huez -- is a failure nearly as great.

Confess to your weakness and play to your strength.

Admit that you broke a rule, but say that the rule itself is unjust. Remind everyone around the world that medicine is only another kind of human ingenuity and that athletes under strict supervision should be explorers, pharmanauts, on behalf of the rest of us. Ten years from now, five, every aging Boomer in America with a bad back and a discretionary income is going to be pestering the family doctor for another refill of human growth hormone. We already spend $300 billion a year in this country on legal drugs -- some of which are lifesaving, some of which are nonsense, some of which are "performance enhancers" such as Botox or Viagra. Nearly a trillion gets spent worldwide.

Hamilton/Armstrong
Tyler Hamilton, left, has admitted to doping and said he observed one-time teammate Lance Armstrong cheating, as well.

Thus, in service of honesty, reality and the furtherance of the species, announce the formation and funding of the Lance Armstrong Institute for Athletic Excellence, an international organization under the supervision of the UN secretariat devoted to the research and promotion, theory and practice of ethical sports medicine worldwide. This would become that panel of "philosophers and medical ethicists, chemists, doctors, molecular biologists, biomechanical engineers, quantum mathematicians, poets and scholars and kinesthesiologists" I mentioned several weeks ago.

Trust me, the argument over the medical benefits and ethical ramifications of "performance enhancement" cannot be left to sports writers. We don't have the brains, the background or the stones for the debate. Think of all this, then, all the upset and travail, as an opportunity to inscribe an absolutely unimaginable honesty as your legacy.

By coming clean, you could rewrite world sports overnight.

But brother, if you really did do everything on the square as you claim -- every stage, every race, every win -- I apologize for ever writing this. And I commend you for a mighty achievement.

If you didn't -- well, all any one of us has at the end of things is our reputation. You and your foundation have done a lot of good in the world, and Americans have an aptitude and a willingness to forgive. Maybe that's enough.

But what we've always valued most in you is your ability to exceed us. To do the hard thing. To ride up and out past what imprisons the rest of us. To show us what's possible even when it's unimaginable.

Do that now if you can.

I send the regards of our small household, and hope this finds you well.

Best,

MacGregor

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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