This weekend, Spartan Race highlighted a newcomer to obstacle course racing in its social media feed. For the first time in his career, Lance Armstrong showed up for a local race, the Spartan Super in Austin. In another first, Lance posted pictures of himself on Instagram, adding in a self-deprecating comment that he had to do 180 burpees during the elite heat for failing obstacles.
While OCR enthusiasts are always happy to see celebrities give their sport a try, Armstrong’s appearance raised eyebrows, as did Spartan’s decision to re-post his photos. Why? A little background for those who were not following Armstrong’s rise, fall, unbelievable comeback, and final disgrace. The Texan was a promising young triathlete who moved over to pro cycling. As he recounts in his inspirational book “It’s Not About the Bike”, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which spread to his lungs and brain. He fought back, survived, and went on to win a record-breaking seven Tours de France, probably the most grueling endurance event on the planet (no matter what Tough Mudder says). However, his career was dogged with rumors of doping, which has been pervasive in pro cycling. He fought back against these accusations aggressively, destroying the careers of many in the industry, until he finally conceded in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that he had indeed been doping all along. The IOC stripped him of his Olympic bronze medal and the UCI stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles and imposed a lifetime ban from cycling. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) imposed a ban that prevents Lance from competing in any sporting events in the U.S. that are governed by USADA rules. However, unlike many of his former teammates, he has only sort-of apologized for his actions. Outside Magazine, which featured Armstrong on its cover countless times, conducted an interview with him a year after the revelations, and his lack of remorse is palpable. Indeed, his only regret is that he got caught, not that he deceived the public and did great damage to the sport.
What does this have to do with OCR? We’re a sport that welcomes everyone, fast and slow, elites and those getting off the couch for the first time, right? The problem is that the ban that applies to Lance extends beyond cycling. Lance’s previous attempts to compete in triathlons and other races have been rebuffed. Margaret Schlachter wrote an excellent analysis of the legal issues last year. The OCR World Championship and the Spartan Race World Championship assert they are WADA compliant with their drug testing, but that still leaves the 100s, if not 1000s of OCR races unclear on their stance.
Enter Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena, who has made it clear that he wants OCR to be part of the Olympic Games. In 2014, he announced that the Spartan World Championships would institute drug testing, which many saw as one of the first steps to gaining acceptance of the sport in the eyes of international sporting circles. It is also no coincidence that his television partner, NBC, pays dearly for its Olympic branding rights. Joe DeSena wants to do everything right in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee. This would be the same IOC that forced Armstrong to return the Olympic medal he won at the Sydney Games in 2000. Which leads to the question: why would Spartan Race highlight Armstrong’s appearance in Austin? In his book Spartan Up!, DeSena mentions Armstrong, and it’s not flattering:
“The endurance world hasn’t been immune to such cheating. In fact, cycling at the Tour de France level is arguably the only sport whose use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is as widespread as that of professional bodybuilding. By now everyone knows about Lance Armstrong’s comeuppance and all the deception and intimidation he mustered to protect his secretive use of PEDs over many years. Such duplicity and the dishonor it produces is the antithesis of the Spartan creed. Our lifestyle pits you against your past self and your former limitations, so drug taking would defeat the purpose of what we do.”
Was Armstrong’s appearance in Spartan’s social media a mistake? Are they hoping that Armstrong’s celebrity as a powerful athlete will reflect some glory on to their brand? Would they do the same if Michael Vick signed up for a race? Or Ray Rice? Many, if not most, sports fans have not forgiven Armstrong for the damage he did to cycling. As someone who defended Armstrong right up until his confession, I resent the time I spent wearing that yellow bracelet. Spartan Race should be careful not to alienate those of us Armstrong betrayed, and they should be especially careful about the message their actions are sending to the IOC.
Editor’s Note: We reached out to Lance to find out if he has any future plans for OCR, and have not heard back as of this writing.
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