An Inspirational Lie

I’ve tried so many times to compose my response to Lance Armstrong’s admission to taking drugs throughout his career. Each time, I’ve found it almost impossible to precisely express my varied feelings towards the man and his actions. Ultimately, I’ve come to realise that my frustration and difficulty is related to my seemingly oxymoronic response to Armstrong’s career and revelation. I have an incredible admiration for a man whose morals I detest.

Like all sports fans, there are a stack of athletes who I don’t like. So many, in fact, that naming them here would be as tedious as Nick Carraway slowly cataloguing Gatsby’s party guests. As is the way of the average loudmouthed fan, I’d still be honoured to meet most of the athletes whom I profess to dislike. Sure, I might tell Hayden Ballantyne that I love to hate the way he plays football, or suggest to Sharapova that I might actually watch her matches if she’d just keep her bloody mouth shut when she hits the ball, but I would also reserve the right to keep such thoughts to myself if I didn’t want to offend. Lance Armstrong, though, is different.

I’ve always believed that being a man of your word is one of the most important qualities one should maintain. I would feel just fine saying this to Armstrong.

***

How can you hate a man who created and leant his celebrity to a foundation that has raised $500 million for cancer? A foundation that “provides free services to help anyone affected by cancer”? Why are people so willing to detest a guy who has used his celebrity to do such good for mankind?

***

It was the song that the US Postal Service team sung to the tune of ‘Purple Haze’ that pissed me off the most.

“EPO all in my veins,

Lately things just don’t seem the same.

Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why,

‘Scuse me while I pass this guy.”

Like other anthems that announce gangs of bullies, it was so damn callous, so damn brazen, and so damn calculating.

***

Earlier this year, Gwen Knapp of Sports on Earth wrote about her closest friend and cancer sufferer Janie’s response to Lance Armstrong:

“He means that people will think I have a future,” she said. Janie practiced law, and she had all the markings of an excellent candidate for a judgeship or political office. She knew that her breast-cancer diagnosis would have held her back in the past, but now Armstrong had rewritten expectations for patients by recovering from testicular cancer and then repeatedly conquering the Alps on his bike.

“This point has been made many times since 1999, when Armstrong won his first of seven Tour de France yellow jerseys. Because of Armstrong, cancer survivors no longer felt universally shunned and pitied. They found it easier to fall in love, apply for new jobs, get promotions and, above all, look forward.”

My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years ago. She, like countless others, “often turned to Lance Armstrong’s ‘Livestrong’ site for some desperately needed hope and inspiration.” When all of the sponsors dumped Armstrong in the weeks before his announcement, she commented that “Silly as it may sound, as someone living in the fragile, frightening zone of remission from cancer, I feel quite devastated at the notion that Lance has been a liar – and a liar on such an extreme level. It makes me feel naive for believing in him at all.”

A bunch of her mates quickly replied with support for my sister and for Lance: “There is a big difference between admitting to cheating and giving up because you’ve had enough”…“The truth is not known to us.” In those pre-Oprah days, they wanted my sister to innocently maintain the glimmer of hope that Armstrong had been clean all along.

Doesn’t such a response say something prescient about the world? About the incalculable power of hope, inspiration and reassurance that can be garnered from a hero?

By the time that Armstrong revealed the truth, wasn’t it more important that this man’s story – The Myth of Lance – was so powerful? In the grand scheme of life, isn’t it more important that recently-diagnosed people turn The Myth of Lance for inspiration and hope than it is to care about who won a bike race 10 years ago?

Is the pursuit of truth and honesty always beneficial for the world?

 ***

Where the hell do you get off, Lance?

What was with the “Back in Austin and just layin’ around” photo that you tweeted just before you went on Oprah?

It was one big “F You” to anyone who believes in modesty, decency, honesty, morality. It was funny, and sad, ’cause you were laughing at the world thinking you were so damn awesome. But the world just looked at you, shook its head, and laughed with derision. Come on, man: you’re a dad.

And your answer in that interview!

Oprah: “USADA issued a 164-page report. CEO Travis Tygart said you and US Postal team pulled off the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping programme sport has ever seen. Was it?”

You: “No. It definitely was professional, and it was definitely smart, if you can call it that, but it was very conservative, very risk-averse, very aware of what mattered. One race mattered for me. But to say that that program was bigger than the East German doping program in the ’70s and ’80s? That’s not true.”

So, let’s sum up. You were being interviewed in front of the world, admitting to having systematically deceived everyone who has supported you for over a decade, and you stop for a second – almost like you were defending yourself – to say “but the East Germans were worse”?!?

I wish Oprah had delivered a follow-up: “And do you take solace from that?” Or: “Are you disappointed that the East Germans were more successful than you were?”

***

Although she is an admittedly biased friend of Armstrong who made a profit from helping him write his best-selling autobiographies It’s Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts, Washington Post journalist Sally Jenkins explained most clearly why Armstrong has been so valuable to cancer sufferers worldwide. She reminded us that he taught the world “the simple yet critical lesson that a third medical opinion can save your life. Or that the more educated a sick person is about their disease, the greater their statistical chance of survival.”

He “not only preached those lessons, but built an organization through which anyone can get the information and education about cancer for free that he was fortunate enough to be able to afford. And who put his money and incalculable amounts of time where his mouth was, raising $500 million for research and donating $7 million of his own fortune.”

He said “You don’t beat it…You get very lucky and survive it. I don’t want anyone to think I beat cancer because I’m special…If children have the ability to ignore all odds and percentages, then maybe we can all learn from them. When you think about it, what other choice is there but to hope? We have two options, medically and emotionally: give up, or Fight Like Hell.”

***

Drug cheats are always one step ahead of the testers. Historically, they have had more money and incentives to entice scientists to help the cheaters rather than the testers.

Imagine what the world might be like if all of the scientists who have worked to develop undetectable drugs to enhance the performance of Lance Armstrong and other dishonest athletes had instead used their incredible minds to focus on preventing and curing disease. Like cancer, perhaps.

***

One argument goes that the world should be pleased that Armstrong finally revealed the truth. Bill Plaschke of the LA Times commented thatAs long as Armstrong keeps his cycling charade alive, the cancer message will be slowly drowned out, The sooner Armstrong admits he is a cheater, the sooner he can resume the business of being an inspiration.”

Perhaps this is the point that caused me to struggle to express my thoughts on Armstrong for so long. At their time of greatest need, many people who are fighting cancer, or who have a friend or relative fighting cancer, won’t be concerned that Armstrong won his races dishonestly. Myth-destroyers be damned.

***

I have no idea what sporting achievements I’m supposed to believe in now.

During the past few years, commentators who know much more about cycling than I have spoken of how the peloton – led by Evans, Wiggins or Froome – have been ascending mountains much slower than riders were in the years of Armstrong’s reign. While this supposedly informs the casual fan that the riders are likely to be cleaner these days, the problem is that without hearing this piece of commentary, those of us on our couches watching the event have no idea. How can we tell if the guy in the Yellow Jersey is riding faster this year than Lance did five years ago? And why would it matter? It reminds me of the designers of the luge track at the Vancouver Olympics who deliberately created a run that would help athletes travel at record speeds. It seemed so pointless, as a vast majority of the audience had no idea that the speeds were faster than those obtained on your average luge track, until a guy died during practice and we started reading about it.

But if we can’t tell that a cyclist is riding especially fast in a historical sense, and it turns out he’s cheating, then how are we supposed to react when we do know that we’re watching the fastest athlete in the history of a sport?

At the London Olympics, the US 4x100m women’s relay team won the race in 40.82 seconds, breaking the world record by more than half a second. The record had stood for 27 years, and according to the commentators on Australian TV was a record held by a team of doping East Germans. It was the first women’s world record involving sprinters to be broken since 1988. So, am I supposed to believe it was clean?

People were called ‘naive’ for having believed in Armstrong. He was riding faster than anyone ever, the critics said, and he was consistently defeating people who were doping. How could anyone have believed that this man was able to be clean and defeat all the dopers in the history of his sport?

Those same people now must surely go after their next target: Usain Bolt. Bolt’s 100m world record is 9.58sec, set in Beijing when he was 23 years old. He hasn’t just run faster than all of the convicted dopers in history, he’s obliterated them. Bolt is 0.1sec faster than any other athlete, and 0.2 faster than convicted dopers such as Tim Montgomery and Ben Johnson. The other men who’ve run faster than Johnson? Three of the four of them are also Jamaicans who have set their PB in the past 4 years – Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell and Nesta Carter – and the fourth is American Tyson Gay. In the past month, both Powell and Gay have been suspended for taking a banned substance. Meanwhile, like Bolt, Blake set his PB at age 23 in a sport where athletes usually peak in their late twenties or early thirties. So, are people just being pathetically naive for believing in Bolt?

Of course, there are very few things people can say about you that are more offensive than disparaging or calling into question your honesty and integrity.

Just ask Bradley Wiggins, the man who won the Yellow Jersey in the 2012 Tour de France, who was asked early on in that Tour what his response had been to anonymous bloggers and social media users who had openly wondered about whether or not the performance of Wiggins and others in the Tour was free of doping.

His reply:

“I say they’re just fucking wankers. I cannot be doing with people like that. It justifies their own bone idleness because they can’t imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives. It’s easy for them to sit under a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of shit, rather than get off their own arses in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something and achieve something. And that’s ultimately what counts. Cunts.”

It was a beautifully appropriate response. To our knowledge. Unless he’s lying.

So that’s our lot from this point forward. We must either be potentially despicable in our scepticism, or forever trusting of people who have devoted their lives to winning these events.

***

For all of his abhorrent dishonesty, there is still one thing I can’t get past.

In 2013, we can all rest in the knowledge that even if he ends up bankrupt and jailed, the good that Lance Armstrong did will still remain.

For if any of us ever find ourselves in the position where we have to turn to a doctor who is about to begin our first dose of chemotherapy, we will take solace by looking them in the eye and saying, “I know he was a dishonest cheating bastard…but just give me whatever Lance Armstrong had.”

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Cycling, Sport. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An Inspirational Lie

  1. Liz says:

    Can’t believe I missed this one! A really interesting take. Wish I wasn’t feeling all bleary-headed on a Friday night and could come up with a coherent response. For now: I guess I’m still less forgiving of Armstrong than many. I draw inspiration from the sheer fact that he survived metastatic cancer – a rare outcome, which (as someone whose cancer may one day metastasise) gives me a sense of hope (though testicular cancer is apparently a more ‘hopeful’ one in these circumstances than many others). I am glad that he donated some of his wealth to cancer research. But I can draw no ‘inspiration’ from him in any other sense now that the scale of deceit has been made clear. As he says himself, the fact that he survived metastatic cancer – while an encouraging medical outcome – says absolutely nothing about his virtues as a human being, but a lot about the quality of treatment he received. And the scale, brazenness and complete disregard for the law that his deceit involved was truly staggering.

    As for Usain Bolt, though, I still believe!!!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s