At one time he was the epitome of the champion: a man who had conquered cancer to win what is perhaps the world’s most punishing race. He was celebrated, venerated and emulated around the world. He started a charity that had every other person we knew wearing a yellow rubber bracelet.
Then, almost before we knew it, he was embroiled in scandal, accused of cheating, alternately arrogant and whining in interviews and stripped of his victories. He retreated from the public eye in disgrace.
Multiple Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, founder of the Livestrong foundation, over the course of two decades, had one of sports’ most epic rises and falls.
Armstrong in the Early 1990s
In the early 1990s, Lance Armstrong was a good but not great American road cyclist, winning some major races, but not the ones that anyone who does not follow cycling would have heard of. He won the 1993 UCI Road World Championships and the United States National Road Race Championship. It was early in his career and did seem like a promising start.
In 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 25. The cancer, which began in his testicles, made its way to his abdomen and lungs, a very serious diagnosis for the young cyclist. That year, he went through 12 weeks of chemotherapy starting in October, and his doctor gave him about a 65% chance of survival.
The diagnosis was a very serious blow to Armstrong, certainly, as a person, but came also just as he was starting to make his mark as a cyclist on the world stage. At the time that he was diagnosed, he was the eighth-ranked cyclist in the world and had won two Tour de France stages in 1995.
Armstrong, with the strength of a young man and top athlete, did manage to beat cancer and return to cycling. His story, in addition to his cycling skill, allowed him to then not only resume his quest for the Tour de France victory but also to build one of the most successful brands in the world.
In 1998, his first race back was the Vuelta de España, where he finished fourth, making it clear that he was not only healthy but that he had his cycling legs back. It was the 1999 Tour de France, however, that was really Armstrong’s coming out party. He won the Tour de France, becoming the first American to do so since Greg LeMond in 1990.
And Armstrong didn’t just win the Tour de France in 1999. He won it every year from 1999 to 2005, setting a Tour de France record with a seven-year winning streak.
This was a story that couldn’t be matched. His improbable victory over cancer at a young age. His ability to overcome metastatic cancer, recover his athletic prowess and set new records for consecutive wins in cycling’s premier race: it was a series of unparalleled successes that allowed Armstrong to become not only a sports champion but a symbol of health, hard work, and perseverance.
Lance Armstrong, The Icon
After Armstrong’s wins, he established the Livestrong Foundation to help people living with cancer. The foundation raised money by selling yellow rubber bracelets. They were a must-have item for regular citizens and celebrities alike.
Armstrong was the first and only cyclist to be Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. He was a celebrity, appearing in films, dating rock stars and showing up everywhere you looked. He was on top of the world.
For many, Armstrong’s successes seemed a bit too implausible. He’d been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs for years. In 2005, just a few weeks after he announced his retirement, a French newspaper reported that an investigation had found six urine samples from his last race had tested positive for drugs.
Armstrong immediately went on television to vehemently deny the accusations. That didn’t stop the avalanche, however.
In 2006, reports started to emerge from Armstrong’s team of failed drug tests and a culture of covering up for Armstrong. Rumors continued to swirl and accusations rumbled. As long as Armstrong remained retired, however, there wasn’t much of a story. If he had stayed retired that probably would have been the end of it.
In 2008, Armstrong announced his intention to compete in the Tour de France in 2009 and 2010. That’s when the bombs began to drop.
Armstrong’s former teammate Floyd Landis, who had his 2006 Tour de France title stripped for doping, in 2010 accused Armstrong of failing a drug test in 2002 and having it covered up. The accusation was published in the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper included Landis’ details on how the cover-up procedures worked. He also revealed that Armstrong, despite his heroic public image, was a “bully and a jerk.”
In 2011, another teammate, Tyler Hamilton, confirmed that Lance Armstrong used a wide variety of performance enhancers including EPO, testosterone, and blood transfusions.
Through all of these moments, Armstrong appeared again and again, vociferously defending himself against “lies” and a “witch hunt.”
These allegations and others led the United States Anti-Doping Agency to launch a comprehensive investigation into Armstrong in 2012 that led to, in its words, “overwhelming” evidence that proved that “Armstrong used, possessed and distributed performance-enhancing drugs.”
Armstrong had all of his cycling victories from 1998 until his final retirement in 2011 stripped.
In 2013, Armstrong appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and confessed to taking performance-enhancing drugs. It was a remarkable moment for a man who for so many years had so strongly professed his innocence and so viciously attacked his accusers. Since that day, Armstrong has been mostly absent from the public eye, his rise and fall complete, a former celebrity hero faded to anonymity.