I just don’t get Lance Armstrong’s decision to throw in the towel. If he wasn’t blood-doping, he ought to stand his ground and fight. If he was doping, he ought to admit it. But walking away in a huff is sort of like hopping off your bike to walk it up a steep hill. Champions don’t do that.
We love Lance because he battled back from cancer. He won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times. He’s got a champion’s chip on his shoulder. His seven Tour de France wins will be erased from the books? "I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours," he says. And he’s right.
But how do you reconcile this Homeric swagger with his newfound "you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit" ethos? Armstrong is breaking the contract he struck with those searching for a hero. He will not face destiny and accept whatever is thrown his way. This time he cut and ran. Lance Armstrong a bitter coward?
Why are we in a dither about blood-doping or the use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes? The world is a small place. We keep track of world records in almost every event, and we expect those records to be shattered year-by-year. It’s not enough to beat your competitors. We want to see the best there ever was every time. We demand it as of right. And so we make machines of world-class athletes. Who blushes with shame when a fifteen-year-old gymnast tells us "I’ve worked my whole life for this moment?" Fifteen. A child. And we demand the superlative moment. Perfection has its costs. We produce athletes on assembly lines.
I watched the Summer Olympics this year with a newfound respect for evolutionary theory. Athletes from around the world turned up in London to compete in games designed to determine who was the fastest, the strongest, the most skilled in the world. What separated the winners from the runners up were often razor thin margins. We watched finally tuned machines who submitted to the best training, the best nutrition, and, in some cases it appears, the best possible breeding for their given event. It was almost as if the entire world were canvassed for the most perfect specimens among us, all in an effort to see the very best a human could do. Are we naive to think these machines don’t get oiled from time to time?
We breed athletes to behave like finally tuned animals. World-class competitors, athletes on professional sports teams, devote themselves to their sport with a single-mindedness that would lead an ancient Athenian to regard them as freaks. What’s a little blood doping or steroid popping?
Of course, our quarrel isn’t with what the gods and goddesses of sport do to themselves. We really don’t care about them. Their excesses are our pleasure.
What we care about is the example they set for those who will never earn a living swinging a bat, running fast, or peddling a bicycle. For every Olympian there a thousand and one broken spirits who could have been, perhaps would have been, a contender if only ... We regulate and condemn performance enhancing drugs to protect the legions of "if onlys," those who do not make the cut. The knife edge of our hypocrisy seeks to protect the innocent who can never stand on the champion’s podium from the self-sacrifice we expect of the elite.
I would have like to see Lance Armstrong talk about that. That would have been a champion’s exit.
I much prefer the image of Armstrong as iconoclast. Seeing him limp away like this hurts. He has better things to do than wage this fight? C’mon, Lance. Don’t walk your bike up that steep hill. That’s a quitter’s attitude.
In criminal trials, a defendant does not plead the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent in the jury’s presence. The fear is that ordinary folks will view this invocation as the equivalent of a confession of guilt. Innocent men fight. Champion’s fight. Lance Armstrong fought his way to the top of one of world’s most punishing sports. Then he stopped fighting. It’s a confession that hardly matters to me.
A friend asked me today whether I thought Armstrong the victim of witch-hunt. I guess I do. Much like 17th century Salem and the crazy theories about the devil and his influence on the world, we, too have beliefs that defy reason. One of them is that we can breed athletes just as we do animals and no one will cheat nature with synthetic wonder drugs. We want our world records, our medals, our public, prime-time spectacles. We want Lance Armstrong to kick ass and take no prisoners. He was a modern Achilles or Ajax. We just don’t want to know how he did it.
Things went a little haywire in Salem. We took our irrational beliefs about good and evil a little too seriously and killed people thinking we were doing the Lord’s work. Just like we’re killing Lance Armstrong. The pity here is that Armstrong lacked the strength of character to tell us what hypocrites we’ve become. Instead, he committed moral suicide. I, for one, mourn his passing