Gripping, riveting, captivating. Take your pick of adjectives, the fact is, Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was that rare type of television that captures the world’s attention.
As the interview unfolded it became increasingly clear that Armstrong, if not a full blown sociopath certainly possesses many of the characteristics usually associated with one.
This should (if we’re thinking rationally) evoke feelings of sympathy for Armstrong rather than the anger and vitriol it appears to have produced. After all, no-one would choose the mind of a sociopath any more than one would choose to develop cancer.
While much of the commentary on the Armstrong saga centres on an incredible tale of deceit and denial, I can’t help but find myself drawn to a seemingly peripheral aspect of this story. Namely, the issue of belief.
Lance Armstrong personified the triumph of the human spirit: the cancer patient who beat the disease and then conquered the toughest race on the planet, seven times. His story was so powerful, so intoxicating that he became a symbol of hope and courage to millions.
As the myth grew so too did the untruths required to perpetuate it. Until all that was left was a snowball of lies, forging ahead, at all costs, no matter what.
The foundation of Livestrong ensured there were would be no lack of willing voices to support the Armstrong narrative. A yellow army of disciples, each one spreading the gospel and each a shining example of how belief is often formed on the basis of what we would like to be true rather than what is likely to be true.
Each time Armstrong raced and won, or defended himself against seemingly corrupt accusations of doping his legend grew, and any criticism of Armstrong became public relations suicide for those who dared. His defence included ruthless intimidation, lawsuits and slander. Armstrong’s most devout supporters added death threats to the arsenal.
Although the majority of Armstrong’s supporters were not zealots they to helped spread false beliefs. As the evidence against Armstrong mounted we were told his former team mates were all bitter, desperate and jealous.
We were told that he rode clean for years whilst all around him doped. For many these extraordinary claims did not require extraordinary evidence, Armstrong’s word was good enough.
Dogma is often responsible for that thinking which prevents us from seeing reality for what it is. And it’s exactly this type of thinking that allowed the Armstrong myth to survive in the face of overwhelming evidence. Perhaps most sickeningly bad arguments in his defence were supported by those who pointed to his charitable work as evidence of his integrity.
Which brings me to the real hero of this story: Science.
Unfortunately for Armstrong, science does not care about myths, fables and legends, or what we’d like to believe. Science is interested only in the truth.
For years, Armstrong hid amongst the gaps provided by scientific ignorance, always one step ahead of drug testing protocols. Until he wasn’t. Retroactive tests of Armstrong samples produced a raft of positive results. Then his biological passport indicated a less than one in a million chance that his biomarker variances could have occurred naturally.
Without hard evidence it would always have been Armstrong’s iron clad word vs the dissension of mere mortals. Had not science unshackled us from the myth how many of us would continue to spread it? How many of us would remain not simply ignorant but defiantly so?
Yesterday Armstrong said of his life: “I mean it’s just this mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.”
What is true, is that the Armstrong myth is now an empty space. Filling that space with something real remains a battle between what Armstrong has done in his life to date and what he chooses to do with the time he has left.
There are many lessons to be garnered from the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong. None more important than the idea that curiosity, scepticism and reason are the greatest means by which we can pursue truth and meaning in our lives.
All that’s required to escape irrational beliefs is the courage to follow evidence and reason wherever they may lead.