I woke up this morning to discover an Op Ed written by Morris Dalla Costa entitled “Lance Armstrong shouldn’t be judged for doping” was gaining some national traction on Twitter. After reading the article, though, I was left with some conflicting emotions.
Let me preface this by stating what follows isn’t necessarily a critique of Dalla Costa’s article, or even the intended point of the article, but just some thoughts that were going through my head after reading. So file what follows under “inspired by” as opposed to “in critique of” the LFPress article.
What I found most striking about the article, and about the handling of the Armstrong accusations and subsequent admission, is the focus on Armstrong being a cancer survivor. As Dalla Costa states, it’s tough placing all of the doping blame on Armstrong when so many of his colleagues were behaving the same way, look no further than Major League Baseball at the time, and as such at issue here is not the doping in and of itself. People seem to be personally offended, on a scale far greater than previously seen, by what he has done. We are responding as though we’ve been cheated by him, in a way more personal, horrendous and vile than any of the other cheaters. Dalla Costa goes so far as to say that Armstrong’s lies and deception literally tore out our collective hearts. Put frankly, Dalla Costa explains why Armstong is the villain here:
“He is an egotistical, lying, phony that took millions of people for a ride, people who didn’t know a thing about cycling but would watch and cheer the man who beat cancer, a hero and example in courage and honesty.
Many of those included the most vulnerable people in the world . . . those with cancer and those who supported cancer research.They thought Armstrong was a man that understood the suffering people go through, how families can be ruined by bad luck. They thought him a man who did what he did to alleviate suffering and misfortune. Not just those with cancer but ordinary people who rejoiced in watching him succeed on the bike, a testament to tenacity and faith.”
When broken down to its core, there are two narratives at work within this article; one of morality and one of betrayal. From one perspective, Armstrong is depicted as a bad person who has bullied, brutalized and cheated his way to tremendous wealth and celebrity. The other perspective, which is messy and far more complex, is that Armstrong is a bad person because he touched our hearts, a saintly man who we cared for deeply and were rewarded for our dedication to living “strong,” to overcome like our noble hero, by him turning out to be no better than anyone else. It appears perhaps the greatest crime Armstrong has committed, the one we simply cannot forgive, is that he is human and, even worse, just as flawed and complex as the rest of us.
I think this is particularly interesting because it touches on a myth that informs much of our response to sick and/or disabled individuals that we encounter. In the Judeo-Christian belief-system, the disabled have long been depicted as “touched” individuals, those who have been touched by God and through whom we might all gain entry to Heaven with charity and compassion. The disabled and the terminally ill are often thought to occupy a space somewhere between Heaven and Earth, often believed to possess divine (or merely clear) vision of how the world works and what should be important in our day to day lives to prepare for the day the days cease. In many ways, I think we look to the sick with admiration because we hope we too will have the same courage and grace in the face of death and are doubly humbled by those who come face-to-face with impending doom and survive. What draws us to Armstrong’s story is that, before the scandal, we saw him as an example of what we too could achieve. Facing the diagnosis of cancer, we too could fight back, win, and do incredible things in the aftermath. His story became a promise that being a good person and believing would be enough.
So perhaps we’re not actually mad at Armstrong, in the same way that we didn’t actually worship Armstrong to begin with either. We loved Armstrong before because he was an example of what we could become and we hate him now because he forces us to interrogate our own complex, flawed, and morally ambiguous reality.
And perhaps that is what this should really be all about, reality, because both sides of this story are true. On the one hand, humans can achieve miraculous things when they put their minds to it. While on the other hand, humans are inherently greedy, selfish and willing to do anything for a competitive advantage. The only question that matters, the lesson to be gleaned from the tale of Lance Armstrong, is which hand will you choose to hold at the end of the day?