Show-trial confessions reveal our own hypocrisy

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Andrew Johns while playing for the Newcastle Knights in 2006. Johns was announced as the eighth Rugby League Immortal overnight (AAP Image/Action Photographics/Grant Trouville)

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Lance Armstrong, in confessing publicly to Oprah in an extended interview, confirmed what many have suspected for years. He is a cheat and a liar.

Worse still, Armstrong is a cheat and a liar who has risen to the top of world sport, accepting and trading upon all of the privileges that came with it. He has, quite literally, deceived his way too the top.

The Texan now stands to lose more than just his sponsorships. He faces a life ban from all sanctioned sporting events, endless court cases, and perhaps even charges of perjury.

Cycling, which barely rates in Australian sports media, is the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons.

Like many others around the country, I tuned into Oprah’s keenly anticipated interview with Armstong and was shocked and angered by his revelations of years of doping.

Watching him speak however, my attitude to the situation softened. It wasn’t as if I believed all that he said, or was gullible enough to think that he was actually ‘coming clean.’ There is no doubt that he is holding on to many secrets, and that his explanations are only part of the story.

Better to view the situation by his actions, not his words. His stand-over tactics to those who accused him of cheating are illustrative of a bully-boy competitor who wanted to “control every outcome.”

Still, what we witnessed was a flawed man trying to explain the impossible. And that makes him human, and worthy of some empathy.

The predictable reaction to the interview among most columnists and fans oscillated between derision and anger. Then there were the usual “I’ll never trust any sportsperson again” hissy-fits. The moralisers were out in force.

Of course, postulating is easy when your a nobody. As Oprah remarked, “fame amplifies the person you really are.” Luckily for us, we’ll never have our indiscretions broadcast to the world.

In Part One of the interview, Armstrong explained that he has always attempted to “control the narrative” of his life.

He’s a self-confessed control freak, with a dangerous streak of “arrogance and defiance.” Armstrong told Oprah that there were only two moments in his life where he wasn’t in control: during his battle with cancer and the interview.

But that was an exaggeration. Armstrong may have lost control of his secret, but in revealing select truths and telling his version of the story, there is still a sense that he is trying to regain control of his own story.

Anyone who has lied, or cheated, or deceived can relate to this process.

Here lies the point. Armstrong is a product of his environment. Not just in his life as an elite cyclist who is expected to perform at the top level, but also as a celebrity.

Many will argue that he coveted fame and fortune and thus deserves to experience the other side of celebrity.

Fair enough. However we should remember that at his core, Armstrong is still a simple man in extraordinary circumstances, like Tiger Woods, or Andrew Johns, or Andre Agassi.

These sportsmen start out as single-minded, tremendously talented athletes, and then we turn them into celebrities and demi-gods.

When they fall, we delight in the bitterness of betrayal and injustice. It’s a chance to reinforce our own moral codes and our own ideological convictions. But there is nothing sadder than frothing over someone else’s mistakes.

The cult of celebrity has been amplified since consumer capitalism commodified all aspects our society, economy and culture. It’s an obsession that started in entertainment, before invading all areas of life, including politics, academia, business and of course, sport.

Sociologists have argued that the celebrity has replaced the cultural role of the religious figurehead, while others refer to them as “the familiar stranger”.

The point is that we invest so much meaning in one individual, and when they fall, we relish the chance to pass judgement. The confessional interview turns into a show-trial, and the situation becomes a pantomime.

At the centre of all this is a man who, you sense, has only made baby steps towards the truth. As fans, it is easy to say we would never cheat, or lie. Indeed the magnitude of Armstrong’s lies are breathtaking.

But it is important to remember that Armstrong didn’t get into the business of lying and cheating as a mature adult with a wife, kids, and a public profile.

He started taking performance enhancing drugs as an ultra-competitive young man, with the implicit support of many of his peers, coaches and teammates.

The original sin, as he himself states, was simply being part of the cycling culture at that time. The dishonesty and rationalisations that followed are a self-perpetuating cycle.

Once you’ve doped and gotten away with it, why stop?

Most of us are lucky enough never to have to face the pressure, expectation and fallout that celebrity athletes do. When we cheat, lie and steal, we only have to face our peers and the people that matter in our small world.

Lance Armstrong deserves severe criticism. His lies went beyond cycling, and his actions should haunt him for the rest of his life. To his credit, he can see that “that guy is still there.”

But “that guy” lies deep inside all of us. Some deeper than others. Some will never let “that guy” see the light of day, to their eternal credit.

David Walsh, the journalist who chased this story for years, is a credit to his profession. Those who didn’t dope and missed out on Tour de France victories as a result can walk a little taller.

Meanwhile, Lance Armstrong, we can all agree, has a lot to answer for. Some would also say that cycling has a lot to answer for. The culture in professional cycling is (or was) clearly toxic.

Still, perhaps there should be more of an effort to understand what drives this kind of behaviour, rather than a witch-hunt.

There will be other Lance Armstrongs. But simply blaming the individual misses the forest for the trees.

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.