What are we to make of Lance Armstrong’s best-selling 2000 book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life? The picture you see above tells one story: it’s a shot I took of a box of free books a neighbour of mine left outside on the sidewalk. When I ran by one recent Saturday afternoon, only one book remained: Armstrong’s. Funny but sad, I thought. When I passed again roughly 24 hours later, it was still there, unwanted even for free. I snapped a picture.
(Another perspective on the book’s value: Amazon is still selling the book, for about $11, though you can also buy one of hundreds of used copies via Amazon for just a penny—in other words, for the cost of shipping it.)
The book, which I haven’t read, tells the story of Armstrong’s rise to prominence in cycling, his battle with and ultimately triumph over cancer, through to his victory at the 1999 Tour de France. This is the other story, the one that made him a hero to so many.
We are now all but certain that Armstrong’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the cycling world was aided by pharmaceuticals, a sophisticated and rigorous doping program that he not only stuck to but bullied his teammates into adopting. Should he still be regarded as a hero in any sense? And is his book still worth reading? We all know now that the book left out crucial details, but as far as I’ve heard there’s no reason to doubt the basics: he had cancer, he had surgery, he “beat” the cancer, he trained hard, he won the Tour de France. So the basics of the hero story remain as valid today as they were when the book came out over 10 years ago. So why is the book now literally consigned to the trash-heap?
For some, the explanation might be simple personal disillusionment. When a hero falls, he falls really hard. So some who previously lionized Armstrong may not want even to think back upon what they now see as their own naiveté. Others may not want to be ‘inspired’ by someone they see as a liar, no matter how useful the life lessons and stories.
I think the best answer lies in the loss of trust. Armstrong’s message was one of hope and courage, and it can only really bring hope and courage to the reader if the reader trusts Armstrong’s words. Armstrong’s message was like that of the kind, experienced physician in whom the cancer patient puts his or her faith. “We’re going to take good care of you,” says the physician. Armstrong’s message: You too can triumph over adversity. Neither messenger can guarantee results: surviving cancer is much more a matter of luck, and good medical care, than it is of gutsy determination. But the other half of the message—the reassurance, the comfort, the message of hope—requires that the patient put their faith in the messenger. And that is the part of his own message that Armstrong so effectively killed.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.