Lance Armstrong the narrative
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“I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles… you should believe in these people.” Lance Armstrong now admits that statement he made on the dais in 2005, after winning his last Tour de France, was based on a lie.
We do believe in miracles though – we want to.
Armstrong’s story provides a chance to look at our culture, particularly how we cleave ourselves to a narrative. One of Armstrong’s imperious abilities has been to control his narrative.
He admitted to Oprah that the “story was so perfect for so long” and so many other people agreed with him. It turned out to be “just this mythic perfect story and it wasn’t true”.
Narratives are seductive. They provide answers and seem to put things in perspective. It’s easy to be sucked into them and it’s natural to want to be sucked into a good narrative.
This is Lance Armstrong the Narrative: a man who overcame cancer, returned to his profession, reached the peak and stayed there for an unbelievable amount of time.
Along the way he raised money to support people with cancer, donated money to charities and research along with preaching the message that anything was possible, even to the average healthy ones among us.
He was even engaged to a rock star to put the cherry on top.
It’s amazing. It’s a real life King Arthur, James Bond and Terminator rolled into one. This is exactly the kind of story we look for.
By his own account, Oprah and he were only in the same room “because there was a two year Federal investigation” that included allegations of fraud, drug trafficking and witness tampering and then a United States Anti-doping Agency investigation on top.
People I know were still willing to defend Armstrong’s racing integrity right up until he announced he wouldn’t be contesting the charges any longer. But with the benefit of hindsight, there were plenty of legitimate reasons to question Armstrong’s record, through tests and testimony, even before those investigations.
People who didn’t follow cycling defended Armstrong aggressively – we were hooked. He was able to pressure journalists into silence, shame riders into compliance and shun doctors from practise to covering up a fraud. And we all defended him.
Not many people slowed down to consider just who they were standing up for. If they did they would realise they don’t really know the man.
This week America realised collectively that another narrative also wasn’t true.
Manti Te’o was a linebacker at Notre Dame, a nationally recognised college football team, who overcame the death of his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day, only to elevate his performance and lead his team to a national championship game.
His girlfriend had a car crash, was diagnosed with leukaemia and passed away – but not before telling him not to miss a game.
For many people, Te’o was a worthy recipient of adulation in a similar way Lance Armstrong was in, say, 2005.
It was all a fraud. His girlfriend didn’t die because she never existed. She was a complete fabrication.
The original narrative was so tantalising and was too good to be true – you want to believe it though. It makes the human heart leap to know someone else overcame such adversity and succeeded.
But we didn’t know much. I certainly don’t know Te’o, just like I don’t know Armstrong. I only know the character they played in an epic story.
In reality Te’o seems to be, at best, a very naïve and possibly depressed college-aged man. He’s not too different to me and a lot of other people I know.
Sadly his grandmother did in fact pass away, but the narrative has swung too far for that to have too much bearing on people’s perception of him now.
Armstrong is, at best, a control freak who has an impressive ability to supress any conscience he may have, who overcame cancer. At worst he is an undiagnosed sociopath.
Here is where the diversion of narrative and reality is such a brutal, painful realisation for those who took heart from his cancer charity and message – Armstrong’s narrative focused on the ability to build success from the ashes of cancer diagnosis through sheer will and hard work.
He inflated the narrative until it was the same blood, sweat and tears that accomplished victory over cancer and victory in cycling – they were the same victory to us.
That is the harsh reality of hooking ourselves to the narratives sports and fame force upon us. The reality of cancer – the reality of many hard things in life – is that we can’t always control the outcome. What we can control is how well we react, how we fight and never giving up.
Unfortunately life doesn’t usually have a bag of blood cells around the corner that will push our performance to the level required to be victorious.
Armstrong couldn’t just be a cancer survivor, he had to be undefeated and his prescience over all had to be preserved by those in the sport.
The cover-up around the 2001 Tour de Suisse appears to be an example where even the administrators placed the Armstrong they needed above the one they’d actually received.
Looking through history and what was said in the Oprah interview, it’s clear Armstrong has a particular ability and propensity to control events, people and views around him. He admitted that the same willingness to “do anything to survive” was taken from his cancer treatment and applied to his career as a cyclist.
Armstrong said, “there was more happiness in the process” than winning itself. This is indicative of Armstrong’s love of control. He sees each little step; he details a plan and follows it all.
I know, myself, the euphoria of winning is far more powerful than being in the toil of the process – winning is the goal. For Armstrong the goal was control and winning was a sign that everything was in control.
I appreciate the process is important and winning allows you to look back fondly on what it took you to get there, but it isn’t the best part. It’s a subtle but important difference.
Armstrong thinks the big comeback led to him being finally found out and caught. He knows coming back into the limelight ticked off more people who knew where the bodies were buried (e.g. Floyd Landis) and would start the rumblings a second time round.
This is tacit admission that, in his own mind, Lance Armstrong the Narrative overtook Lance Armstrong in reality – he made a tactical mistake because even he was intoxicated by the narrative.
Do this for me: compare the 2013 Armstrong with the 2005 Armstrong.
Why? Because if you allow yourself to think about it for more than a few seconds you want that old Armstrong back. The world where Armstrong is clean, beat the odds of cancer and slayed the giant of the Tour de France seven times is better. It’s just not the truth.
Look inside yourself. I think you’d hit the reset button if you could. It’s just such a tasty prospect.
This essay isn’t meant to make you question everything. It’s a reminder of the impossible expectations we place on people we don’t know, while simultaneously investing a little bit of ourselves in the outcome of their narrative.
In 2005 Armstrong stood on the top of the podium and asked us to believe in people. I want you to believe in people too, but not mere characters in a story.