Lance Armstrong, the Modern Prometheus
Normally I have less than zero interest in sports or sports celebrities, but the fall of an icon like Mark McGwire (whose signature was on my younger son’s baseball bat when he was in Little League) or Lance Armstrong , whose as-told-to memoir It’s Not About the Bike so inspired my colleagues at Book-of-the-Month Club a decade-plus ago, does give me pause.
The fact that Armstrong availed himself of battalions of doctors and boatloads of drugs when he was battling cancer didn’t take away from his victory over the disease in anyone’s eyes. So why wouldn’t he use the chemical tools that virtually all of his competitors were also using when he raced, just to level the playing field if not to give himself an edge?
No one has suggested stripping Faulkner of his Nobel Prize because he wrote his longest, most convoluted sentences under the influence of alcohol, or removing Coleridge from the pantheon because he penned Kubla Khan while doping. No one puts asterisks next to the Rimbaud poems that were the most hallucinatory or the Jerry Garcia guitar solos that were performed when he was taking LSD. Scientists whose wits were sharpened by the pep pills they took in the small hours of the morning still get credit for their discoveries. What’s different about Armstrong? Only everything.
A sports victory isn’t a means to an end–a poem you can read over and over again, a theory you can put to use, a record you can hear a thousand times on the radio. It isn’t like a victory in war, where the winner continues to exercise power over the loser. It is a thing in and of itself, and as such, it is easily compromised. Winning by cheating isn’t winning; it’s cheating.
Wars against drugs don’t do much to reduce drug use, but they do expose hypocrisy. Armstrong is a world-class hypocrite, but his persecutors very likely are too. When DEA agents interdict illegal cocaine shipments they toast their success with legal cocktails. Back in the prohibition era, doctors would sell their patients prescriptions for “medicinal” alcohol, just as unscrupulous doctors will sell prescriptions for non-medicinal Oxycontin and other controlled substances today.
Armstrong beat one failed drug test, back in 1999, with a back-dated prescription for corticosteroids, which he allegedly used to treat saddle sores. Could he have convinced arbiters that his other suspect drug tests were either contaminated, misread, or mistaken–or that they had detected old traces of legitimate, perhaps cancer-fighting medications? I’m guessing that it would be easier to make the case that his steroid use was what caused his cancer to begin with, but what do I know?
I don’t defend doping…. And I do deplore the mentality that puts winning above everything, even at the cost of turning a blind eye to a pedophile coach–or to the hideous, permanent injuries that our champions sustain while entertaining us.
Remember the Twilight Zone in which Lee Marvin managed and then impersonated a broken robot boxer in the ring? It inspired the Hugh Jackman movie, Real Steel. It was of course a retelling of the story of John Henry. Marvin lost the fight but won his dignity.
“Portrait of a losing side,” Rod Serling said in his closing narration. “Proof positive that you can’t outpunch machinery. Proof also of something else: that no matter what the future brings, man’s capacity to rise to the occasion will remain unaltered. His potential for tenacity and optimism continues, as always, to outfight, outpoint and outlive any and all changes made by his society, for which three cheers and a unanimous decision rendered from the Twilight Zone.”
For Rod Serling, tough-guy sentimentalist that he was, it was all about humanity. Human beings might be weak and mortal, but by God, they reach for the stars.
Doping, it occurs to me, is what happens when our sports heroes–cheered on by their fans and enabled by the billion-dollar industries that feed off them–aspire to make themselves into something super human, to become the very machines that John Henry died fighting.
It’s kind of a Frankenstein story, when you think about it. It can’t but end sadly.