To all the haters that don’t think cycling is a sport, and the Tour De France ranks just below watching an apple turn brown, let’s be clear: Lance Armstrong has earned the love. The cancer-surviving cyclist ended his career with a record seventh straight Tour De France victory. Immediately the accolades rolled in, and he has earned every dollop with an athletic tenacity and compelling personal story that’s touched the lives of millions.
But one piece of praise seemed to stand out like Judge John Roberts in Harlem. This was gushed from a guy who has taken a few spills from his Schwinn in recent weeks: President George W. Bush. "Lance is an incredible inspiration to people from all walks of life, and he has lifted the spirits of those who face life’s challenges," Bush said about the fellow Texan and "old friend". "He is a true champion."
The praise struck an odd note considering Armstrong’s comments after winning his seventh yellow jersey. They weren’t about the Alps, the cobbled Paris streets, or the new bell on his handlebars. They were about Iraq. "The biggest downside to a war in Iraq is what you could do with that money," Armstrong said through gritted teeth. "What does a war in Iraq cost a week? A billion? Maybe a billion a day? The budget for the National Cancer Institute is four billion. That has to change. Polls say people are much more afraid of cancer than of a plane flying into their house or a bomb or any other form of terrorism." His timing was fortuitous. A report came out of the Congressional Budget Office the next day that indicated the war in Iraq will cost more – adjusted for 2005 dollars – than any war since the Second World War, with a price tag that may near 800 billion dollars.
Armstrong’s statement is significant because it represents a sharp turn from his previous statements against the Iraq invasion. When the war was launched out in 2003, Lance’s soft anti-war views sounded more James Baker than Ella Baker:
"I know George Bush well, having met him about 20 times, and I support him, but going ahead with this war without the support of Europe would be dangerous … it would be a mistake to engage in war without the backing of the United Nations and Europe," he said. "If there’s going to be a war then we’ll be up against a billion Muslims – so it would be unreasonable for the United States to go it alone against such a huge part of the world."
Armstrong took great pains at the time to compliment Bush with every statement, saying that Dubya sometimes appeared "brash," but that he was "more intelligent than people give him credit for." He added, "Bush isn’t a banker from New York, or a tycoon from California. He’s a cowboy from Texas."
In 2004, Armstrong’s anxiety about the war was rising, perhaps affected by the French protests during that year’s Tour. But despite his stronger objections, Armstrong still reserved praise for his "friend" in the Oval Office. "I don’t like what the war has done to our country, to our economy," he said. "My kids will be paying for this war for some time to come. George Bush is a friend of mine and just as I say it to you, I’d say to him, ‘Mr. President, I’m not sure this war was such a good idea’, and the good thing about him is he could take that."
Now in 2005, Armstrong has taken a much harder stance. This could be attributed to possible aspirations for political office. Armstrong in a recent interview laid out his views on a number of issues, describing himself as "against mixing up state and Church, not keen on guns, pro women’s right to choose. And very anti war in Iraq," – which may lead some of us to wonder exactly what political party in our glorious duopoly would even allow him to stand as a candidate. Others have said that he is simply under the sway of his rock star partner Sheryl Crow – she of the "War is Not the Answer" t-shirts, the group Musicians Win Without War, and singer of searing anti-war anthems like "Soak up the Sun."
But the real reason for Armstrong’s recent statements most likely stems from simple frustration. Armstrong sees his life’s work, cancer funding and research, being undercut by this war. He takes this position even though it could lose him his Oval Office access. He speaks out "on foreign soil" even though it could mean derision when he returns. He will assuredly face words such as those from one internet blogger who wrote "Lance Armstrong should be detained the moment he steps back on American soil, and then he should have a bicycle tire pump shoved so far up his ass that he whistles Dixie when he breathes." If the cancer that spread to his lungs and abdomen, not to mention the Pyrenees, didn’t deter Armstrong, a pustule armed with a laptop and fried cheese probably won’t keep him up nights. Especially when the priorities of medical research or "generational war" hang in the balance.
Armstrong has devoted countless hours to the fight against cancer. There is not more money for cancer research because of the war. It’s that simple. It’s also not just cancer. In my hometown of Washington, DC, this $800 billion price tag means high rates of infant mortality, shuttered public hospitals, and schools in a constant and eternal state of crisis. This is a battle for priorities. If Lance wants to see victory, chuckling it up with his "fellow Texan is no way to lead this movement forward. Instead Armstrong should ride among the critical mass bikers and anti-war couriers at the national anti-war protests on September 24th in Washington, DC. Consider this an invite, Lance. Consider this a way to continue to "live strong.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.