Lance Armstrong: a case study in mass reality denial

yellow jersey

I recently finished Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell; the book’s tagline is “Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the greatest sports conspiracy ever.” A friend gave it to me in part to make sure I remained in touch with the truth. I put it aside for awhile to read other things and because it is painful to read.  One of the “other reads” was M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled.  This passage stuck with me: “Often this act of ignoring (reality) is much more than passive. We may denounce the new information as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil. We may actually crusade against it, and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to our view of reality.”  I wrote in the book margin, “what happens when this goes on at a mass scale?”

It does not take imagination to see what might happen on a societal scale if enough are committed to a false reality or an idealogy: the Cold War, Climate Change denial… Let us take a less controversial, more personal example: Lance Armstrong.

Perhaps your “relationship to Lance arc” is similar to mine. I first learned about Lance Armstrong during his comeback after cancer. I read his book It’s Not About the Bike and admired his beautiful wife and children. From the very first Tour comeback there were rumors about cheating and a small chink of doubt existed alongside the admiration for his courage and physical abilities. Meanwhile the Tour de France, Versus cable station, Nike and others were doing their utmost to sell us a golden hero. And lots of people fell in love with Lance Armstrong. This actually had the opposite effect on me. I call it my Watergate Vaccine because in fifth grade I can recall witnessing my teacher Mrs. Stone’s disillusionment over Watergate and it taught me to be wary of people in power lest they disappoint.

I did enjoy Lance Armstrong’s success. It meant that far more attention was paid to cycling and it made it easier to enjoy the sport. By the 5th or 7th tour win other rumors were circulating–not about Lance’s doping, but about bullying. It may sound strange but this bothered me even more. People had already been saying things like, “Well if Lance is cheating with EPO then he is only doing what every other cyclist is doing.”  Now people began saying, “Sometimes you have to use intimidation to win at elite levels.” I have never been an end justifies the means kind of gal. I started looking for other cyclists to give my attention to and began to sour on Lance.

My love of cycling was sorely tested when Floyd Landis was caught cheating and stripped of his Tour de France win. Somehow I bounced back by the next July and got sucked into the pageantry and drama again.

Then Lance returned to cycling a couple of years after retirement and I was annoyed. It felt greedy and as though “It’s Not About the Bike” was not true afterall.  At this point so many cyclists were getting caught for doping that it did seem to reinforce his most commonly used defence to accusers, “I have been tested hundreds of times and never been caught.”  Now we know from books like Wheelmen and Lance’s own admissions in ProCycling and other magazines that he excelled at covering up his doping as much as he did at cycling.  Lance invariably adds: I was doing what everyone else was doing.

Except that not everyone was doing it. And some very talented people, such as three time Tour winner Greg LeMond, chose to retire rather than dope.

What about our complicity in distorting the truth? Albergotti and O’Connell ask this in the epilogue to Wheelmen:

Millions persisted in believing in him until it became impossible to do so. Why?

That may be a question harder to answer than why his teammates and coaches, his sponsors and financial backers, collaborated in the lie. But society’s gullibility in the face of ever-mounting evidence probably has something to do with its need for a certain kind of hero. Looked at this way, Lance is the inevitable product of our celebrity-worshipping culture and the whole money-mad world of sports gone amok. This is the Golden Age of fraud, an era of general willingness to ignore and justify the wrongdoings of the rich and powerful, which makes every lie bigger and widens its destructive path. 

I do not have an answer for society’s ills, but I do know that I am not prepared to accept doping as the norm in cycling. And I am willing to forgive and forget a rider’s past transgressions if he is willing to humbly confess and gracefully accept the consequences.  Even Lance.

The Truth Will Set You Free

This is weekend in the USA when we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. for his contribution to our shared history. MLK quote It is lovely to have a holiday in honor of a man of faith whose courageous leadership is an inspiration. I’ve been rereading Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled and his chapter “Dedication to Reality” struck a chord: “The third tool of discipline or technique of dealing with the pain of problem-solving, which must continually be employed if our lives are to be healthy and our spirits are to grow, is dedication to the truth. Superficially, this should be obvious. For truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better we are to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world–the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions–the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.” (p 44)

Martin Luther King, Jr. provides an example of what is possible with a commitment in the truth’s reality. King’s life was cut short and yet I can imagine that he would have been among “a relative and fortunate few (who) continue until the moment of death exploring the mystery of reality, ever enlarging and refining and redefining their understanding of the world and what is true.” I want to be one of these few too.