In the end, the truth beat Lance to the line

Many readers will guess that picking Lance Armstrong as Sportsman of the Year must be a juvenile wind-up. Sports Monster of the Century more like.

Still, if the power of sport is in the stories it tells, then you have to salute a man who became the sports story of the year without competing in a single race.

Umberto Eco wrote that “the fascination of Casablanca” — “aesthetically speaking... a very mediocre film” was that it threw together dozens of stock storylines in a way that collectively transcended kitsch. Casablanca takes several archetypal themes, any one of which would be enough to propel an ordinary movie — Unhappy Love, the Promised Land, the Love Triangle, Civilisation against Barbarism — and fuses them into something that takes on a mysterious, resonant power.

“It is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology... Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us... the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.”

The power of Armstrong’s story owes something to the way it combines many classic genres. The endgame as the investigative web closes in is a compulsive crime thriller, with characters like the dogged federal agent Jeff Novitsky and the Cato-like David Walsh, whose arc moves from Prophet Screaming in the Wilderness to Journalist of the Year.

The details of the doping read like science fiction. Red eggs, Edgar, blood bags — how 21st century science creates a Frankenstein athlete. Armstrong’s witch-doctor Michele Ferrari is a Gothic presence on the periphery.

The broad outline of the saga is a Faustian fable: the hero does a deal with the doping devil and enjoys seven Tour de France victories before losing his soul. A curious thing about the many versions of the Faust story is that more often than not, God takes pity on Faust and he gets away with it. So far there seems little appetite for forgiveness from those who suffered at Armstrong’s hands, and there is no sign of remorse from Armstrong’s side.

Armstrong, the insistent atheist, never subscribed to the Christian world view. He understood his sport as a battle for glory between men of action, “the toughest event in the world, where the strongest man wins”. When glory is all there is, the concepts of sin, penitence and redemption have no relevance.

We need to remember an older model of human motivation. At the beginning of Western storytelling you find the Iliad, centred on a character whose outlook would be familiar to many modern athletes. Destiny forces Achilles to choose between ‘kleos’ and ‘nostos’: glory, or homecoming. Either he wins eternal fame by dying at Troy, or he goes home to live out his days in peaceful obscurity.

Achilles chooses fame, which means death. If you believe that sort of thinking has gone out of fashion, remember that in 1996, Sports Illustrated asked athletes competing at the Atlanta Olympics whether they’d take a drug that would let them win every event they entered for the next five years, even if they knew it would then kill them. Half of those surveyed said yes.

Achilles is not a good man in the Christian sense. His chief character traits, pride and wrathfulness, are two of the seven deadly sins. What the Greeks demanded of a hero was not that he be good but that he be larger than life.

Like a Greek tragic hero, Armstrong brought about his own downfall. Coming out of retirement was an act of hubris that reaped the whirlwind of the federal investigation. Unconsciously he may have wanted the world to discover the trick he had played on it. The doping programme was so sophisticated that he must have been proud of it; not being able to tell people about it must have been a strain.

Sigmund Freud wrote that “no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore”. In the public domain Armstrong mercilessly pursued those who told the truth about him, but he seemed to have a compulsion to take other insiders into confidence, most damagingly for him when he told Betsy Andreu to stay in the room while he recounted his past drug use to a doctor.

Opinion on Armstrong now falls mostly into three camps: those who see him as a cheat, those who think his worst crime was to be a bully, and those who can’t quite decide. As for the fallen hero himself, he got what he always wanted. Nobody will forget the name of Lance Armstrong now. Despite his disgrace, you wonder what he would say if you could offer him the chance to go back and do it all over again. I suspect he wouldn’t change a thing.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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