Nearly eight years ago, (or was it nine?) a packet was delivered to my office. The box was well sealed and took a bit of effort and a little help from a paper cutter to prise open. In a neatly packed envelope was a letter from my friend Rahul Johri, of Discovery Channel, and a small plastic packet with a little yellow band. The band had a word embossed on it “Livestrong”.
Intriguing it was, as was the brief letter from Rahul, explaining the significance of the yellow rubber-band, Discovery’s association with Lance Armstrong, a cycling champion, a champion of the Tour de France. But more importantly, a champion of surviving cancer. The last few weeks have had Armstrong in the news grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons. The seven-time Tour de France champion stripped of all his titles because he failed a dope test, nearly five years after his last win.
What are the authorities looking for? The fall-guy? I am one who believes that sport has to be and should always be clean. Drugs and dope to enhance speed, stamina and strength are criminals of a kind that not only take away from the glory of sport but take champions away from their true glitter, not to mention, the glitter of metals that hang around their necks when they climb the podium and hear the National Anthem ring out loud, amidst the cheers of millions in the stadiums, and around the world.
But the cheers turn to jeers very quickly. When Ben Johnson displayed that burst of energy and outclassed Carl Lewis and the rest of the bunch, he had eyes that bulged red, from the time the starters gun rang loud to the time he breasted the tape in 9.75 seconds. But how long did that glory last? Just those 9.75 seconds. The moment he tested positive he was stripped of gold and more importantly stripped of social standing.
Armstrong got to know of his cancer when he was not a champion. He was asked to undergo therapy, and he was asked to give up cycling. Testicular cancer and cycling were poles apart. But the man was determined not to let a little challenge take him away from what he loved most — pedalling for miles to become one of the biggest legends in sports. He overcame cancer, he overcame pain, and he overcame self doubt.
Year after year, from 2000 to 2007, he won. And won by beating some of his fiercest rivals. Some raved and ranted about Armstrong and drugs. Some just moaned about him being a cheat. The authorities tested him. Before the races. After the races. Race after race for seven long years and found no trace of any substance that could have been performance enhancing.
Armstrong retired. Retired from the sport he loved and the sport he gave a new life to. Cycling was just another ‘nice’ sport that some people took to, to stay fit and win some medals. Armstrong took cycling to a higher order, and people followed in droves.
Along the way he set up the Lance Armstrong Cancer foundation. The little yellow band was launched and millions bought and wore it proudly in support helping Armstrong raise millions of dollars to create a formidable charity that would help fight the dreaded disease — cancer. Lance the cyclist, Lance the Cancer survivor, Lance the philanthropist. The merging was seamless, a bit of a blur, the same way he used to be a blur while racing miles and miles to win one Tour title after another.
Recently he was the inspiration for our very own Yuvraj Singh, who fought with the same tenacity on the field and in the cancer wards of hospitals in India and America. Yuvi, tweeted: “Lance continues to be my hero”. Yuvi met the man, the legend and the survivor. And Yuvi came back to overcome his own battle. And what a comeback it was in the recently concluded ICC T20 World Cup.
Yuvi feels his learning and sharing with Armstrong really helped him see life from a different point of view. His books “It’s not about the Bike” and “Every Second Counts” have entered the legion of motivational books, of thoughts that spur you, of moments of truth where the mind is stronger than steel and man overcomes fears.
Over the last eight – nine years I have walked into meetings, sat in airline seats, waited in corridors to meet the school principals, and time and again the opening lines of folks around would be, “Excuse me, what’s the yellow band your wearing?”; “Excuse me, can I also get one of the yellow bands?” To the latest one just a few days ago, at Heathrow airport, while I was boarding the flight: “Excuse me, you’re still wearing that yellow band? Isn’t this from Lance the cheater?”
It stung. And how! Lance the cheater? Or Lance the Cheetah? The man who could cycle as no man ever did? For years they tried to nail him. For years they tested blood and urine. For years they used newer and newer methods, tests, chemistry, biology and psychology too. But found no trace. And suddenly poooof, it’s all gone with one verdict. Stripped of all his titles because a man with his gavel decided he was in a position to wipe clean history and remove a name from the annals of cycling and sport in general. What does it do to hordes of followers? What does it do to the faith bestowed? What does it do to the little yellow bands around millions of wrists?
I still wear it. And will continue to as long as the rubber holds and the letters so proudly embossed don’t fade away: Livestrong.
The writer is the Founder & Managing Director of Creatigies Communications and an avid sports nut.