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.


26 thoughts on “Lance Armstrong, the Modern Prometheus

  1. Most of the time, Arthur, I agree with you. But here I must respectfully dis. Writing poems, novels, performing music or conducting science are not competitive sports. The only common ground for these human pursuits is the creative imagination. Sports on the other hand is based on the performance of body and mind. By enhancing his body with drugs Lance Armstrong is explicitly dishonest. This taking of drugs to strengthening the physical attributes of an athlete is unethical behavior.

  2. Completely agreed: “But a sports victory isn’t a means to an end….It is a thing in and of itself, and as such, it is easily compromised.”

    Obviously, I didn’t write this as well as I should have, but the point I was trying to make was that artistry and athletic contests are fundamentally different things.

  3. I was listening to the BBC last night and one of the folks they interviewed mentioned the problem with deciding who will get the Tour de France wins now. One person said that the winner may well be someone that wasn’t even in the top ten. Where they tested? At the time he was racing, doping was widespread, and there were no chance of winning without them. The point was made that since the crack down, that the times have increased.

    What bothers me is that he was never tried. The anti doping folks don’t demand solid proof, they will take evidence that is not accepted in a US court.

    There is no place for doping in sports, but it needs to Proven, not alleged.

  4. I’m torn. It could go both ways. Think of all the novels and albums that have won awards, and how drugged up/drunk the artist was when they made it. Then think of the other novels/albums that were up for the same award, but the artist was clean. Should the doped up artist be stripped of the award?

  5. I say let them dope it up all they. Like a waiver acknowledging they know what it will do to them, juice up and hit the road. The question is will the public still follow a sport where they know the guys are all stacked?

  6. I’m not a sports fan, but like most everyone I know who Lance Armstrong is and what he has achieved. The thing that gets me about this is there are HUNDREDS of drug tests that he passed, He hasn’t failed a test during a race since 1999…and that one was iffy. 99% of the USADA’s case was based on testimony of previous racing mates…most of them disgruntled because they couldn’t cut it. Did Lance dope? Probably, at some point, but this was a witch hunt WAY after the fact, pure and simple.

  7. Interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    TDF riders were taking performance enhancing drugs right from the beginning. Read simply TDF history. And people were watching riders dying.

    I think this witch hunt for Lance Armstrong is politics, slander and destroying not only Lance Armstrong but the sport of cycling; and it demonstrates how some not even governmental bodies think they can administer the law. Pathetic!

  8. Lance Armstrong is like Tiger Woods – a massive Nike branded sports god that was too big to fail, and certainly too big to be treated objectively by the media. I personally am sure that Armstrong cheated via doping, having read a lot on the subject that is yet to come out, but the bigger story for me is how the media collaborated with his unethical behavior. And in that collusion there are similarities to how blind eyes are turned to great artists’ misdeeds…

  9. Forgive me but I don’t believe your comparison works. People don’t create a book or develop a new device from exactly the same moment against the same clock. People have different backgrounds, resources and timescales that they are working on.

    Whether some are using illegal drugs (vs the very nice legal coffee I am sampling as I type) is irrelevant – although illegal of course.

    In sports the competition is fair and starts at the same time for everyone. That’s the issue with drug taking in sports. It introduces direct unfairness into the winning equation.

    As to Lance I haven’t heard that he has been proven guilty only that he is choosing not to fight the charges any more. Is that justice? It doesn’t sound it to me.

    Until I hear some proof otherwise Lance Armstrong still won seven tours as far as I am concerned.

  10. Sorry, he cheated. It’s as simple as that. Moreover he gained from his cheating and leveraged his success while cheating to further himself. That’s why he’s not fighting back, he hasn’t a case. It’s doubly sad really – in part for the social reasons and the atmosphere of competition that breeds this mentality; and it is sad for the man who convinced himself he was doing nothing wrong in the first place.

    Kind regards,

  11. I often wonder if they will take my AA, BA, MA, and my PhD when I finally get that…To say I’ve taken drugs to get an “edge” is a simple understatement. But all my fellow fellows do: anxiety meds, depression meds, caffeine in all and any forms, and whatever else we can get our hands on. In my case, it’s not just about the academy-it’s about my own battles-but I’ve not been “sober” for years…I could even argue that the meds I take make me not me, and give me an unfair advantage…Sure, they’re legal and prescribed (IN MOST CASES), but they are still drugs. The war on drugs does so little to actually accomplish anything.

  12. First of all, its interesting to see the timing of all this doping “discovery”. There is something definately going on behind the scenes with the agenda of the powers that be to wait so long after the supposed fact. Look at WikiLeaks. Look at the political timing of the FBI nabbing Roman Polanski right after releasing the fictional, political film The Ghost Writer after years of the U.S. government ignoring his warrant for arrest. I am not saying, nor do I even care if Armstrong doped or not. Personally I believe all those athletes take some sort of substance at some time or another, and Armstrong still came out on top. I just think there is much more going on that we wont know about until years down the road. As for Armstrong, for anyone that knows what its like to rebuild ones life after being diagnosed with cancer, he will be remembered for what he did outside the professional sport. It really isnt about the bike.

  13. Perhaps in years to come drug use in sports will be considered ethical and be commonplace. We could then look back on the current era much as we look back at the Prohibition of alcohol. A futile attempt that simply lead to criminality.

    On the one hand I hope not. If nothing else the drugs they use can lead to long-term damage. And besides I see it as cheating. On the other hand, alcohol isn’t exactly safe. It can certainly harm individuals and society.

    But I do like my wine 🙂

  14. Dear USADA,

    Congratulations……….All of you people there at the USADA have proved with your witch hunt of Lance Armstrong that you ALL are on the same playing field of some of the most despicable people on Earth……..right up there with the freaks at the Topeka, KS Westboro Church that picket soldiers funerals…..

    You people with your “Holier than Thou” attitude do NOTHING to inspire or lift people up as Lance Armstrong does…….you only exist to tear people down, which not only makes you all the worst kind of people, but makes you complete losers……and losers always hate people better than themselves…..that’s why they are losers and will always be losers……and you people are major LOSERS…….

    Lance Armstrong passed ALL the tests (nearly 500 of them in his career and many that were random) and still you persisted because you could not stand the fact that he was just a better athlete that all the rest……..I would expect that you will soon be going after Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps and most likely will be opening cases against Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, and Michael Jordan so you losers can feel like you have anything to do worth while…………

    There is NOT a Rath or Punishment severe enough to impose on all of you there at the USADA that you ALL deserve more than anyone I can think of for what you have done to Lance Armstrong, His Family, and to the millions of people around the world that his story and achievements have inspired and given strength to overcome against all odds……..You will all get yours in this life or the next……

    Most discusted,

    Blake Norris
    Las Vegas, NV

  15. What pains me is that as far as I can gather there has been no concrete proof that Armstrong ever cheated. However, there seems to be clear cut evidence of a ‘witch hunt’. To strip Armstrong of all of his wins without a shred of evidence will not promote a drug free Tour de France. It will encourage people to think that there is cover up regarding the organisers who seem happy to hide behind this ‘Armstrong scandal’ instead of addressing how the sport failed for decades to do anything about the dope cheats.

    Surely the organisers should be concentrating their efforts on preventing doping and finding out who is supplying these cyclists. And who are now going to be named as the winners? How can they be tested to ensure that they didn’t cheat so long after the event? For all we know, the same so called witnesses, may be the ones who cheated, and now stand to claim the winner’s trophy! What a fiasco and a horrible way to deal with a legendary sportsman and a noble sport!

    We may never know if Lance Armstrong cheated, but it is clear that he has been cheated of a fair chance to defend himself. A drug cheat, cheats themselves, but to be cheated of a right to reply ultimately cheats everyone.

  16. ATTENTION EVERYONE……..I need some help with this one…….This is going to be hard to believe…….BUT……Today, Sunday, August 26th, 2012 I actually had a personal back and forth email exchange with Travis T. Tygart at the USADA regarding their Doping allegations against Lance Armstrong…… started with a very sarcastic e-mail of my disgust of what the USADA has done to Lance that I had sent to Mr. Tygart (much like the post i posted above here earlier today) full well never expecting a reply…….but I did indeed get a personal reply back from Mr. Tygart and then it progressed into a full back and forth exchange of several e-mails with thoughts and discussions between myself and Mr. Tygart……..and as interested as I am sure all of you will be as to the content of the emails, I will NOT be making them public……BUT, I would however like to be able to forward them to Lance himself if possible in the chance that anything in them might be of some help to Lance in fighting this total injustice brought upon him by Mr. Tygart and the USADA…..and from the tone of many of his replies to me, it sure sounds like now Mr. Tygart is having to defend himself……..and he sounds VERY guilty……if there is anyone out there that has an email address for Lance or knows a way I can get all these emails between myself and Mr Tygart to Lance, it would be greatly appreciated. I am sure Lance would also appreciate this……If anyone can help, please contact me directly at


    Blake Norris
    Las Vegas, NV

  17. Reblogged this on Arthur Goldwag and commented:

    So I’m reading that Lance Armstrong not only confessed to doping, but offered to rat out his accomplices as step one on his road to redemption.

    Last summer I compared Armstrong to Frankenstein’s monster, in a blog post that a lot of readers wrongly thought was meant to defend him. At this point, I think he’s something of a sociopath–and the living emblem of our winner-take-all culture.

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