My moral dilemma of the week was a prized photo that has followed me around for a number of years.
In the picture, a desperate 11-year-old boy, wrapped in an American flag, urges cycling hero Lance Armstrong through an uphill pull during a Rome time trial, part of the 2004 Tour de Georgia.
The photo, shot by Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographer Brant Sanderlin, sits in my office next to an advertisement for last year’s Sarah Palin documentary. The question is, what to do with it? The boy and his anguish — there is a look of stark pain on his face — were real. It is the cyclist who turned out to be fake.
Last week, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a massive case file with more than 1,000 pages and sworn testimony from Armstrong’s ex-teammates, who gave firsthand knowledge of his doping activities. The world’s most famous cyclist, the report declared, was far more than a bystander when it came to the distribution of syringes and banned substances.
“It was not enough that his teammates give maximum effort on the bike, (Armstrong) also required that they adhere to the doping program outlined for them or be replaced,” the report said. “He was not just a part of the doping culture on his team, he enforced and reinforced it.”
Those words appeared to drain all meaning from the photo in the office. Again, what to do with it? I posed the question on the Political Insider blog at ajc.com. Trash it, many anonymous voices immediately said. The Internet is nothing if not judgmental.
A Democrat wrote to commiserate. She was once the owner of a boatload of John Edwards photos that suddenly had no place in a thinking person’s life.
But on Thursday night, minutes after Joe Biden and Paul Ryan left their debate table in Kentucky, a message arrived on the laptop — urging me to hang onto the photograph. It was from Samuel Douglas, the boy in the picture. He is now 19, a student at Furman University and president of his cycling team. We talked by phone Friday.
Douglas was already a cycling fan before Sanderlin snapped the shutter eight years ago. His parents — Jimmy Douglas is a Rome physician, Laurie Douglas is a former teacher — had taken their three sons to France in 2003 to watch Armstrong win his fifth Tour de France victory.
The next year, Armstrong came to Douglas and Rome as a competitor in the fledgling — and now defunct — Tour de Georgia. The side-of-the-road photo made a mark on Douglas’ life. It landed the youngster on the front page of the Journal-Constitution, then the centerfold of Sports Illustrated.
“My first reaction was I was a cool and famous fifth-grader,” Douglas said. His highly perishable celebrity gave him a brief entree to a world closed off to most people. He has three copies of the Sanderlin photo, all autographed by Armstrong.
Like much of America, Douglas had a hero. “I really respected him,” he said, “and not just as a cyclist.”
This was a man of profound influence. His Livestrong cancer research foundation put rubber yellow bracelets on the wrists of millions. He had gone mountain biking with President George W. Bush. Texas Republicans spoke of Armstrong as someone who might have a political future.
“He was the Oprah of athletes,” Douglas said.
Yes, there were the rumors, all met with a blanket denial from Armstrong, who said he’d never flunked a drug test. For Douglas, that once might have been enough.
But on Wednesday, the USADA report included the name of George Hincapie as one of Armstrong’s ex-teammates who had ‘fessed up. Hincapie was Armstrong’s lead-out man, the only member to ride with the champion during each of his seven Tour de France wins.
Hincapie also owns a bicycle shop not far from the Furman campus in Greenville — a man of good, local reputation. “Once George came out, it kind of sealed the deal,” Douglas said.
Douglas said he’s hesitant to judge the hero he once attempted to push up a hill through sheer force of 11-year-old will. “We obviously don’t know Lance at all. We know that he’s a great example — strictly on the bike,” the young man said. “But off-road, I think we can look at him and know he didn’t treat his teammates well. I think we can look at his character from that and say that we’re disappointed.”
The 19-year-old said he wants to keep thinking well of Armstrong’s post-cycling, anti-cancer career. “Cancer doesn’t care that Lance doped,” he said. “Cancer patients that benefit from the research don’t care that Lance doped.”
For all those reasons, Douglas intends to keep those three autographed photos of himself as a flag-draped kid. As for the one in my office, it is important to note what happened after that moment was frozen in time.
Not in Armstrong’s world, but the world of Samuel Douglas.
That photo marked him, but did not make him. Since then, his father has taken him and his brothers — he is the oldest of the trio — on charity missions to Honduras and Africa. His mother has insisted that the brothers engage in public service at home. Meals on Wheels, in particular.
Samuel Douglas is an Eagle Scout, and he’s now headed for med school. To become a pediatrician, perhaps. We need more in Georgia.
So that photo will remain in the office, in its place next to Sarah Palin. It still contains heroic possibilities — just not from the man clipped into the pedals. Samuel Douglas has promised to sign it next time he’s in town.