Friday, August 24, 2012

The Mythology of Lance Armstrong

Sport is different from life, but it is also a part of life. It's this tension that makes the whole Lance issue so difficult.

We can pretend that sport is its own pure realm, a kind of fantasy place where rules ensure fairness, where hard effort and teamwork leads directly to victory, a sort of pure meritocracy of talent and physical genius. This is the ideal of sport. It's a kind of false reality that we construct. If we construct it well, then winning and competing mean something -- because the rules of the game ensure a relative degree of fairness.

We build this reality because life is decidedly unlike the realm of sport. The rules of life are vague and shifting. Success is open to interpretation. One of the very first things we learn as children is that life is simply not fair. The goal in life, therefore, is not to win or compete, but to survive and, with luck, flourish. 

Let's put it this way. When something goes wrong in sport, you lose. When something goes wrong in life, something worse than losing can happen.

The difficulty in judging Lance comes from the fact that in his case the lines between sport and life became so muddied that they are almost indistinguishable. If this were a pure sporting issue, then we could just say Lance broke the rules of the game and so therefore he is no longer a winner. It would be as trivial as catching someone illegally moving pieces in a chess match. The match would be thrown, and the title awarded to someone else.

But at some point the fantasy world of sport touches that other reality of life, where things larger and weightier than winning and losing take place. In the Lance case -- and this is the case in almost all sports now that they have become fully professionalized -- the fantasy is all mixed up with the reality. 

First, doping. The reason doping is illegal is not simply that it is unfair. It's that it's dangerous. Doping is not just against the rules of sport; it also runs up against the reality of life. Doping not only wrongs the others playing the game, but it creates a culture in which the only path to success in sport is also the path to debilitating physical conditions or even death. What Lance did was wrong not just because it created an unfair competitive situation (and it could even be argued that he doped to CREATE a fair competitive situation) but primarily because his doping and trafficking of drugs, as well as the encouragement of his team to do so, contributed to a culture of doping that was dangerous to cyclists as human beings. His violations were not just at the level of sport -- they were ethical violations at the level of life.

Second, cancer. Lance was not just a great cyclist. He was a cancer survivor and philanthropist. Here again, Lance consciously blurred the boundary of sport and life. When Lance rode, he wasn't just scoring a victory for himself. He was doing it for those who have struggled with and succumbed to cancer. His victories didn't look like winning a game. They looked more like the deeper moments of success in life. In this sense, Lance was not just a winner. He was a hero. His wins were not just about individual glory, but about the possibility of fighting through sickness and tragedy. This was not about a cyclist winning stages, but about a man winning back his life.

Third, country.  Sport is political from the outset, and Lance Armstrong represented American triumph. At a time when America's possibilities seemed endless; the beginning of this new century, Lance Armstrong emerged with that All-American name, that Texas-burnt face, and in the middle of our opulence and superpower lethargy, Lance was a symbol that America deserved our position in the world. Lance basically went over to Europe year after year and whupped ass--at a European sport. Americans who knew nothing about cycling and who wouldn't really even watch the sport loved the guy because he was the perfect image of us. Bold, arrogant, hard working, straightforward, talented -- basically a superpower on a bicycle. He was everything George Bush turned out not to be. Here the fantasy of sport got all wrapped up in the fantasy of America. We needed to believe -- and perhaps still need to believe -- that we truly are exceptional. That we have the one guy in the world who can beat everyone else even though they are all doped up. In this way Lance funded this myth of American exceptionalism, and that's why we loved him and wanted to believe that he was clean.


In the end, Lance was not just an athlete. He was more like a Homeric hero--the parallels with Achilles are quite incredible. He was a mythology. The role of mythology is to bridge fantasy with reality, and this is why, in the end, all myths must be exposed. Reality always proves to be too much. We end up trying to piece back together the broken shards of fantasy. This is the nature of tragedy.

Myths always fail because to be a truly mythological character, you can't be truly alive. You aren't a person -- complex, growing, and eventually dying. You are an idea -- cold, permanent, representative. After the idea of Lance has broken apart (athletic careers never last forever), we will be left only with a person. Lance himself will be forced to come to terms with the reality of his life. I imagine some day soon, he will.

But the American public? Will we come to terms with the myth that was broken? See the human, all-too-human side of it? It's doubtful. In the next week or so, that myth will simply be forgotten in the mad rush to create new fantasies. After all, football season is starting. Reality be damned.

14 comments:

  1. Lance cheated his way into yellow. Fine. If he hadn't, the seven others who finished behind him in 2001 tried to. It's been a horrible two decades plus for integrity in sport. BUT... The actions of the USADA have been nothing short of Orwellian. Secret witnesses, back room deals, threats, and coercion. I'm all for busting cheaters, but if you can't do it on the up and up... If you have to break the rules society is trusting you to protect, we're better off just watching the cheaters ride their bikes. Right now, I don't trust USADA. They are just as corrupt as those they are supposedly saving us from. It's lose lose and if I had a choice, I'd just prefer to lose.

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  2. sitting here watching giants v bears and at halftime there's a discussion of the saints bounty scandal. know what i am talking about? where the players got bonuses for taking other players out. boomer esiason (sp??) and bill cowart are going on about the brotherhood and whatnot, but all i am seeing is that the sport, commercialism, money, profits, livelihoods, are all mixed up. and, just like that, i am thinking about this post of yours which is of course light years more eloquent than what i am sputtering on about here, but i am certain you get me, man.

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    1. hey, look -- i got esiason right and cowher wrong. but still, the point is the point!

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  3. This is the same story as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and now Lance. Have any of them ever failed a drug test? NO. Just because of hearsay years later, all of a sudden they are guilty until proven innocent?? You are so wrong. I am sure you were one of the first people on the disband Men's Duke Lacrosse when they were falsely accused by that one girl. So quick to judge. Put the real evidence out there, Lance passed over 500 tests. He is the 7 time Tour de France winner and will always be it. Shame on you!

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  4. Most sports I couldn't give a rat's ass about. (partly because of the doping and larger than life status placed on the athletes) I don't know why I got pulled into the world of cycling. The Lance myth was a big part of it.

    Awesome write up.

    Time for a long ride in the country.

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  5. I really don't understand USADAs motivation here. He never tested positive and he never admitted to anything he just said that he is done with this BS. There isn't a drug out there that one can take to make them Lance. He was definitely on something, on his bike everyday training his but off. He has an incredible work ethic and determination, that is what made him successful not some drug. If he was doping and never had a positive test then there obviously wasn't enough drugs in his system to help.

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  6. Thanks for the comments, positive and negative. I am happy to address any criticisms that are relevant to the piece. It's true that this piece assumes that Lance both doped and trafficked drugs, as the USADA claims. He has never admitted to these charges, but I have followed the Lance conversation closely for years, and I believe that the assumptions this piece makes are justified.

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  7. Good write-up. I agree that something dies for each of us when this happens. I am still a Lance fan and don't think he deserves to lose the victories.

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  8. Well done Jeff. Lance really was the Achilles of late and no Greek could write a tragedy as great as the one we saw unfold in real life. Pretty soon I'm going to read that Joey Chestnut is using PEDs too.

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  9. Nice post. I posted a link to New York Magazine entitled "Ten Contradictory Thoughts You're Allowed to Have on Lance Armstrong this Morning." (http://nymag.com/daily/sports/2012/08/ten-contradictory-thoughts-on-lance-armstrong.html) To me, your post really addresses WHY we have these contradictory thoughts - the butting of heads between the reality and the mythology that was constructed around him (and around sports in general).
    Grief, anger (towards Lance, cycling, the USADA, etc.), disbelief, disappointment are all reactions to the unveiling of the myth a lot of us believed in.

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  10. Sometimes you get asked who your heroes are. I always have trouble answering that question for the reasons you outline here. People like Lance Armstrong who are set up on very public pedestals will almost always tumble off. There are countless politicians, actors and athletes who have taken this fall before him. We should all let Lance go be human (he always was anyway), and then work on fixing our own flaws.

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  11. I believe the assumptions of the piece are correct too. I'd say Lance's mythology was much greater in the U.S. as we didn't really get the whole 'country' thing (whipping European ass in a European sport). When Cadel won he wasn't regarded as a Homeric hero, just a sporting hero. But Cadel hadn't overcome cancer or become a great philanthropist.

    I think Lance is in damage control in order to deflect negative publicity from the Livestrong brand. And perhaps to make a comeback in low-key 'amateur' sport (just not in the Chicago Marathon).

    There was an interesting TV show on the PR of Lance - worth a look: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/gruenplanet/pages/s3583424.htm

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