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Legends of the Fall

Lance Armstrong: a liar, a cheater, and an inspiration

Outside my window, half the leaves are red; there’s a jack-o’-lantern — it was a pumpkin yesterday — on the porch of my across-the-street neighbors, leering out at their evangelical yard signs. One of their rosebushes is still blooming, big wet smacks of pink, but the sky is as gray as a stone. We live on the main street of our little Pennsylvania town, which is also the most reliably sidewalked path to Walmart. So there’s a slow but steady trickle of moderately beat-down-looking foot traffic, and I guess that’s where it’s aiming, though who knows. It’s a long way off, but say you didn’t have a car. There’s a pair of super-obese old ladies whom I sometimes spot whizzing past on these amazing wide-body people-movers, always in single file, zipping around the traffic, spilling out of their seats but nimble as cats, a weird electric peloton of two.

I’ve got a sports-debate TV show on in my office. You know the kind. A couple of shouting men, shouting mannishly. Suits too big for their arguments. I’m not really paying attention, but I keep looking up and noticing the set, one of those premium-alloy SPORTSLIFE interiors that looks like it was forged by robots out of a room-size Intel processor. I’ve seen a couple of these studio environments in person over the last year, and what sticks out, IRL, is how flimsy and ad hoc they are — these things are designed to be constructed and deconstructed with as little effort as possible. On TV, though, they’re kind of astounding, data-saturated command centers that make you feel intuitively that this is the place where sports is really happening.

The guys are talking, in their Col. Nathan Jessup–doing-stand-up kind of way, about Lance Armstrong. I don’t entirely know what to make of this. The lines of attack against Lance Armstrong are, at this point, obvious and undeniable — the doping, the massive Nixonian cover-up, the sensational revelation of the doping/cover-up by Armstrong’s fellow riders and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. And the ways of defending him, half of which boil down to “everyone was doing it,” are persuasive only if you need them to be. Lance Armstrong is a liar, and a great athlete, and a cheat, and an inspiration to a lot of suffering people (but then so is a televangelist), and a bully, and a survivor, and a fraud. I used to think that you couldn’t ever say whether the world was good or bad because the world contains everything we know about either of those qualities, and so no one can gain an outside perspective from which to weigh the judgment. Lance Armstrong isn’t the world, but his story has become such a total index of modern sports culture that the norms of SPORTSLIFE can’t really hope to get outside it. In any given Lance Armstrong discussion, doesn’t it always feel like something is missing — like you’re only seeing six sides of a seven-sided polygon, and you can’t tell where the seventh side is?

I mean, OK, let’s think through this. Lance Armstrong became one of the two or three most transcendent American sports stars of his generation despite the fact that hardly anyone in America cares at all about his particular sport. The ratio of passionate Lance Armstrong fans to people who have ever actually watched Lance Armstrong race except for maybe a few minutes during this one Tour de France is just crazily out of whack. Somewhere, I realize — Luxembourg? — there is a large core of passionate cycling fans who are skipping their Luxembourger lunch breaks to take in the early mountain stages in the Giro d’Italia, but in America it’s almost definitely the case that more people have seen Lance Armstrong commercials than have seen Lance Armstrong compete. Which is all just to state the ultra-obvious, that it was his story that made him a superstar: his comeback from near-fatal cancer, the hope he offered other cancer patients, his charitable work through the Livestrong Foundation, the yellow bracelets, the sense of larger purpose. Cycling wasn’t the cause here so much as the arbitrary venue in which the cause could prove itself noteworthy.

Which means, from one point of view, that Armstrong’s career was always about the triumph of sports narrative over actual sports — or at least that was a feature of it, that so many people could become so invested in a guy whose competitive endeavor they’d never given two thoughts to before. Obviously, you don’t get that kind of exposure without a pretty big hand from the media, and Armstrong’s story — which was genuinely moving — was beautifully suited to the redemption/uplift arm of the SPORTSLIFE machine. In some ways, it was actually better that cycling was such an afterthought. Since hardly anyone actually watched much of Armstrong racing, he didn’t even have to be packaged in terms of live entertainment.1 He could be broadcast as pure information, or whatever the emotional equivalent of information is. He was a hero of feeling, not a hero of sports.

The problem with this arrangement was that, despite every illusion to the contrary, sports doesn’t actually exist within the laser-hewn SPORTSLIFE set; not mostly, maybe not at all. There is a whole world outside the window — worried people in cars, hulking dudes in trench-coat-length Flyers jerseys, patients in hospital rooms, college kids streaming The Walking Dead — and sports is complicatedly woven into it and part of it. With most feel-this-now narratives, there are at least regular games to serve as a kind of reality reset. Once a narrative like Lance Armstrong’s is set loose in the world, though, it can just keep ramifying, because it’s both verifiably true and not strongly connected to any real, shared experience. That’s what’s so tragic about what turned out to be Armstrong’s charlatanism. He had to cheat to win. But he had to win primarily to validate the narrative, not because the consumers of the narrative liked watching him do it. One of the reasons he could be so inspiring, in other words, was that for all practical purposes he barely existed at all.

There’s an old cemetery behind our house. Slanted-wafer Revolutionary War graves strewn around in snaggletoothed lines, that sort of thing. Winged skulls disappearing back into the stone. In the fall it fills up with birds and at random intervals you’ll see treetops explode with crows. The central grave, or at least the biggest, belongs to Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, better known as Molly Pitcher, the war hero who manned her wounded husband’s cannon against the British at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. Most of the graves are small and semi-overgrown; Molly Pitcher’s is meticulously tended. It features a large statue, multiple plaques, elaborate flowers, American flags, and a cannon, all added long after the fact. A story becomes important and then because it became important it becomes more important and eventually it generates heroes and statues and flags. Historians disagree about whether Molly Pitcher was a real person.

After the USADA report and the sponsorship gang-dropping and the resignation from Livestrong, the media has finally shifted Armstrong over to its shame/disgrace wing, and with a few exceptions, the emotional phaser is now set to “condemn.” Within cycling, he’s being mocked as “Cancer Jesus” for hiding behind the survivor narrative. (This is nothing new.) There has also been, I think it’s fair to say, a convulsive backlash among regular fans, many of whom are still furiously defending “Lance” while equally furious others vent their betrayal. I would like to join in the condemnation, personally. Armstrong strikes me as a bitter, entitled, petit-thuggish narcissist, and I can’t stop thinking about the people he trampled on, like Emma O’Reilly, his team’s soigneur, whose life he tried to ruin financially and legally because she told the truth about his doping regimen. But I also can’t stop noticing that many of the people still defending him — not denying that he cheated, just knowingly rooting for him anyway — are cancer survivors or the family members of cancer patients. Robert Lipsyte wrote about this for The New Republic, how the thought of Armstrong helped get him through chemotherapy. And once you start thinking along those lines, that he meant that much to people, that it’s not a trivial thing to be a hero of feeling, this becomes one of those problems you can’t think your way outside.

I want to write: “I would rather be devastated by the truth than comforted by a lie” and be able to believe it. But that’s easy to say when you’re outside the drift of the regular world, writing away on your sports column. And I wonder what the ladies on the people-movers would think.

Lance Armstrong is a liar, and a fraud, and an inspiration to millions of people, and one of the trees outside my window has leaves that are almost purple, and it’s almost the end of October, and sports keeps rolling on. The TV guys are yelling about something else. Soon it will be Christmas. I have no idea how Lance Armstrong will be remembered. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if 30 years from now his reputation had been more or less refurbished, if people said, Well, everyone was doping then, and it was complicated, and he did great things. I mean, this is the West, sir; print the legend. Maybe doping will be standard practice in 2042. Or maybe not; but it’s always hard to remember that there were victims in cases like this, and what you do remember — hypocrisy and rule-breaking — doesn’t always look so bad a few years down the line. How you feel about that probably depends on what you think heroism means in America, and whether you picture Halloween or Jesus when you hear that the dead are rising from their graves.

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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