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Gray hats make for intriguing storytelling

September 4, 2012

A couple weeks ago, Lance Armstrong said he would no longer contest the charges against him by the United States Anti-Doping Administration (USADA). As a result, Armstrong was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles. He will also added with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and seven of the last ten other Tour winners, in the pantheon of cheaters.

There’s a lot to this story. Armstrong never failed a single test. All the evidence against him is eyewitness evidence–the statements of other cyclists–many of them admitted dopers. However, in sports today, just the suggestion of doping is enough to make you guilty. Ask former Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, if not for whispers about the possibility he might have doped.

ESPN writer Rick Reilly paints a different picture of Lance Armstrong. He says he will wear yellow to honor Amstrong, primarily because of the work he’s done fighting cancer. Reilly says Armstrong has raised nearly half a billion dollars to educate cancer patients. One of those patients was Reilly’s sister, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and survived. The first book she bought after the diagnosis was Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike.

Only Lance Armstrong and a handful of others know if he really cheated. Strong cases can be made to support and reject the doping allegations. And if he did dope–and practically everyone else doped–can the blame lie exclusively with him. According to Reilly, doping is so prevalent that if you eliminate all known dopers, the fifth place finisher would have won the 2003 Tour de France.

In other words, both the facts and the truth about Lance Armstrong did and didn’t do are messy. They’re further messed up by the good Armstrong has done outside the cycling arena, where he has inspired legions of people in the face of a terrible disease. You can condemn him. You can praise him. And in both cases, you could be right.

The Lance Armstrong case is a fantastic template for our work. The protagonist was once an inspirational success story who inspired a lot of people. Depending on your viewpoint, he was either railroaded by USADA or was yet another doper. Or both. And then there’s Livestrong. No matter how I turn this over, I’m not sure what I think about Lance Armstrong. He certainly doesn’t wear a black hat. But I’m not sure he wears a white hat, either. His hat–at least to me–is gray.

We could do work in creating our own protagonists.

One Comment
  1. Jack Owen permalink
    September 4, 2012 7:38 am

    Life IS gray – FICTION is black and white!

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