Once upon a time, boxing ruled in America. The sport appealed to everyone from Las Vegas millionaires to working-class dockworkers. Its events packed the world’s biggest arenas and drew millions more either to their local bars or around their TVs and radios.
Now, boxing barely matters here. What happened? The public became convinced every fight was rigged (June’s highly publicized Pacquiao-Bradley farce did nothing to dissuade us from that notion), and it became disgusted after watching the fall of Muhammad Ali, the sport’s greatest, smartest, funniest, handsomest athlete.
Granted, cycling’s popularity in the U.S. has never been remotely close to boxing’s. But cycling definitely made inroads in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, and Lance Armstrong was the biggest reason why.
Armstrong’s story – a cancer-survivor refusing to give in, an American dominating a sport ruled by Europeans, a quietly hilarious cameo in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story — was one we could latch onto. And in a sport where drug use apparently rivals that of baseball, Armstrong proved that no matter how much an opponent might cheat, heart and determination and talent could still win out.
Nope. Turns out, Armstrong’s heart probably pumped red-cell enhanced blood, just like everyone else in an irredeemable sport.
Armstrong abandoned his fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s decade-old allegations Friday, earning him an immediate lifetime-ban from competitive cycling. The International Cycling Union and Amaury Sport Organization – which organizes the Tour de France — have yet to clarify with USADA who decides Armstrong’s status as a seven-time Tour winner, but all of Armstrong’s yellow jerseys could easily go the way of boxing’s integrity.
Even if Armstrong ultimately retains his titles, it won’t matter: cycling as a general-interest spectator sport is effectively dead in this country. Armstrong was the last defense against the public assuming every great cyclist is just a great cheater breaking the rules better than his opponents.
Armstrong’s fall doesn’t exactly replicate Ali’s. Armstrong chose to break the rules, and even if everyone else also did it, that decision still deserves the full penalty of the law. Ali, meanwhile, fought his whole career ignorant of the damage all those blows to the head would have on his brain — in part because boxing’s organizers kept such information away from their moneymakers.
While the former athlete deserves the blame for his own downfall that the latter does not, Armstrong and Ali still parallel each other in that each was such a dominant athlete during his career that he came to embody his respective sport. Because of that, when those athletes withered, so did their respective sports’ popularity.
Boxing has steadily lost fans ever since Ali left the ring. Cycling had a chance to retain whatever popularity Armstrong had given it when fellow American Floyd Landis won the Tour in 2006, but then Landis failed a doping test, and after that America abandoned interest in a sport dominated by Spaniards (one whom also eventually earned a ban for doping violations) and Brits (if Bradley Wiggins ever tests positive, the sport may die off entirely).
Cycling now runs counter to America’s belief that every person is innocent until proven guilty. Every cyclist is now guilty until proven innocent, and at this point it would take several velodromes worth of proof to convince us that even those with clean drug tests aren’t simply disguising it better than the World Anti-Doping Agency can currently detect.
Armstrong’s personal brand, his foundation and all the legitimately good work it does, may survive whatever final punishment USADA and cycling’s other governing bodies may hand out. NPR has predicted it will, even suggesting Armstrong threw in the towel because he knew it would better serve Livestrong.
If that’s the case, it’s admittedly a noble gesture to sacrifice one’s life work to advance a cause. But that’s just the faintest of silver linings to the otherwise massive storm cloud Armstrong’s crimes have cast over the sport that made him a big enough name to make his foundation possible in the first place.
Armstrong’s personal future might not take too much of a hit by USADA labeling him a cheater. Cycling’s future, however, looks far bleaker, at least in the U.S.
Cycling’s corruption has made it the new boxing. And as boxing died in this country, so too might cycling.