Friday, August 24, 2012

Lance Armstrong in the news and the art of the narrative as polemic

AUSTIN, Texas — With stunning swiftness, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said Thursday night it will strip Lance Armstrong of his unprecedented seven Tour de France titles after he dropped his fight against drug charges that threatened his legacy as one of the greatest cyclists of all time.


Travis Tygart, USADA's chief executive, said Armstrong would also be hit with a lifetime ban Friday. And under the World Anti-Doping Code, he would lose the bronze medal from the 2000 Olympics as well as any awards, event titles and cash earnings.

Armstrong, who retired last year, effectively dropped his fight by declining to enter USADA's arbitration process — his last option — because he said he was weary of fighting accusations that have dogged him for years. He has consistently pointed to the hundreds of drug tests he passed as proof of his innocence while piling up Tour titles from 1999 to 2005.

"There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough.' For me, that time is now," Armstrong said. He called the USADA investigation an "unconstitutional witch hunt."
"I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999," he said. "The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today — finished with this nonsense."

USADA reacted quickly and treated Armstrong's decision as an admission of guilt, hanging the label of drug cheat on an athlete who was a hero to thousands for overcoming life-threatening testicular cancer and for his foundation's support for cancer research.

"It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and athletes," Tygart said. "It's a heartbreaking example of win at all costs overtaking the fair and safe option. There's no success in cheating to win."
Tygart said the agency had the power to strip the Tour titles, though Armstrong disputed that.
"USADA cannot assert control of a professional international sport and attempt to strip my seven Tour de France titles," he said. "I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours."

Still to be heard from was the sport's governing body, the International Cycling Union, which had backed Armstrong's legal challenge to USADA's authority and in theory could take the case before the international Court of Arbitration for Sport.

This could be (and is) read as proof that the United States Anti-Doping Agency is finding Armstrong guilty without evidence.  To this end political retribution could be considered, I suppose.  I know that some guitarists and luthiers consider the raids on Gibson over alleged violations of the Lacey act are better explained by politics related to Gibson executive contributions and "right to work".  Since I am not comprehensively versed in the entire situation with with respect to Gibson or to Armstrong I can't speak definitively to that.  It remains to be seen in the case of Armstrong.  I do understand why some people consider the Lacey Act enforcements with respect to Gibson deeply problematic.  I remember enough about allegations of Armstrong's doping to recognize this recent news is significant in either direction.

I do not normally make it a point to really care about sports but this year things like the Sandunsky case suggest that scandals about corruption or cheating or abuse within American athletics may be considered indicative of broader cultural issues.  Particularly in a United States in which so many pastors and preachers invoke and compare their work to athletics then the question of sportsmanship and ethics in both professions seems more salient than would otherwise be.  I am, in a potentially once-in-a-lifetime moment, about to quote from Fox Sports.

Lance Armstrong is the Great American Sports Cheat. Our greatest ever.

It’s not just that his Tour de France titles have been stripped. By now, we’ve dealt with plenty of amazing feats taken away because of doping.

Or not taken away. Guilty or innocent, Barry Bonds never asked us to believe that he was all about the potential of human spirit. Roger Clemens and Marion Jones didn’t represent hope.

Armstrong tied his cycling titles and his cancer victory and his charity into one heroic narrative about himself. We all bought in. Who wouldn’t? But as the years went on, and the doping allegations built up, he used all his good will to mobilize forces against anyone who dared to point a finger at him. [emphasis added]

It was such a shockingly mean-spirited turn. And now his narrative comes off as such a big lie, no matter how many people he helped.

He played us to the end. He brought us along through so much, asked us to believe so much. And then, rather than going into arbitration to fight his most serious doping allegations, Armstrong ...
Gave up.

A federal court wouldn’t throw out the case earlier this week.

And when Armstrong decided Thursday to stop fighting, the US Anti-Doping Agency said it would -- and did on Friday -- take away his Tour de France victories, ban him from cycling for life and label him a cheat.

There are still questions regarding statute of limitations, and whether all of Armstrong’s wins are subject to being stripped, or just two of them.

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough,' ’’ Armstrong said on his website, calling the USADA’s case against him an “unconstitutional witch hunt,’’ and saying the doping allegations were taking too much time away from his charitable work.

From "never give up" to "enough is enough". This doping fight was too rough for him? No, he just played us all again.

How sad that he hides behind his foundation, his charity, his army of followers, including cancer survivors. Armstrong leaves by saying that he’s not guilty. He just isn’t going to keep fighting.
Roughly, he’s saying: I am so tired. I have no more strength. Let them do what they want to me.
It is a genius play, really, pitching to his followers that he’s the victim. His dwindling numbers of believers will see him as an even bigger hero. But it’s a losing end-game now that he didn’t push his case to arbitration.


If you want to believe Lance Armstrong cheated his way to his seven Tour de France titles, there’s sufficient evidence—blood samples and accusations from former teammates and cycling officials—to convict him a dozen times over. And, up until this week, if you wanted to believe in the innocence of the man behind the yellow bracelet, there was more than enough to grab on to as well. Two of Armstrong’s most prominent accusers, after all, are a pair of brazen liars.


This has been Armstrong’s default mode for a decade: angry, defensive, paranoid, self-aggrandizing, and messianic. This isn’t just a defense mechanism—it’s a brand. [emphasis added[. In 2005, Neal Pollack wrote a piece for Slate called “Lance Armstrong Ruined My Gym,” describing how his local 24 Hour Fitness converted itself into a “Lance Armstrong shrine” that featured “dozens of photographs … alongside various laminated newspaper articles, Sports Illustrated covers, line-by-line breakdowns of his workout regimen, a racing bike in a glass case, and a history of his life broken into four sections: In The Beginning, The Detour, Born Again Cyclist, and The Road Ahead.” Looming over the weight room was the following Armstrong quote, lifted from a Nike ad: “This is my body, and I can do whatever I want to it. I can push it. Study it. Tweak it. Listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I'm on. What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?"

For a long time, these sulky, aggro monologues worked as a PR strategy. When nobody thought he would endure testicular cancer, Armstrong got healthy and became the greatest bike racer ever. The world’s most famous cancer survivor then stared down drug accusations the same way that he did disease. His accusers were doubters, and doubters were poisonous.  When everyone is against you, the only way to prove them wrong is to fight and fight and fight some more. Eventually, you’ll wear them down, win, and be a hero. That is the way Lance Armstrong saw himself, and that’s the Armstrong we came to know in Nike spots.

This news is something in itself but I'm going out on a limb here because today's news about Lance Armstrong under fire comes to light the day after the centennial of Gene Kelly's birthday.  This could be an opportunity to consider whether legendary performers in sports and entertainment are what they used to be or if, perhaps, there's always been a mixture of legacies that may tell us as much about what we want to believe about ourselves and our causes as about the men and women through whom we credit or blame them. 

Now Gene Kelly's legendary dance sequence from Singin' in the Rain is just one of dozens of on-screen demonstrations to the joy, charm, and power of what the human body can express.  Athletes have another way of expressing what the human body can do.  Kelly's legacy inspired countless dancers and at least one world famous action star (Jackie Chan).  If it turns out Gene Kelly could be short-tempered, occasionally a competitive jerk, and at times a startlingly demanding taskmaster we can consider the Freakonomics observation about the worthiness of a cause.

For instance Debbie Reynolds once said that the sheer physical torture of learning all the dance styles for Singin' in the Rain was more torturous than childbirth.  She also said, if memory serves, "I've had four kids so I'm not just making that up."  She also said that after the sheer ordeal of what Kelly put her through it was rough but she said proudly that when she was through with that she never wanted for finding work in show business for the next fifty  years.  She was grateful that Kelly put her through that much punishment and taught her that much about professionalism and art.

A man with flaws, no doubt, a man with pretty decent-sized ego, sure, but in the decades since his death there has been plenty of time to show whether or not the man's legacy was based on some kind of cheating.  The man's legacy is not just in his own work but in his followers and apprentices. Even though Hello Dolly may not rank as a truly great musical millions of people got to hear some of its music through Andrew Stanton's WALL-E.  The pedestrian, the forgotten, the overlooked can be where beauty still resides.  If Gene Kelly were alive to have seen the Pixar film maybe he would have scratched his head or maybe he would have felt glad to know his attempts to express love and joy in film have made a difference.

Now Couch's comments today may end up being wrong but they seem particularly salient about Armstrong's public stance.

Armstrong tied his cycling titles and his cancer victory and his charity into one heroic narrative about himself.

This has meant that if a person were to question the narrative in part then the best defense would be offense, some variation of a standard ad hominem.  Thus, "Everybody wants to know what I'm on. What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?" As Levin puts it, Armstrong's accusers were doubters and doubt was poisonous.  Armstrong can choose to be the fittest person at 40 on the planet and raise his five energetic kids and pretend that allegations or accusations or evidence against him won't matter.  People blog, you know?

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