Lance Armstrong is no Robin Hood. It is time to accept our flawed humanity, writes Nirmal Shekar
HIS is a very hard thing to say, something that may not go down well with a lot of readers. But I see it as the truth and can feel it in my bones as the truth and I have to say it. The moment Lance Armstrong admitted to systematic doping and cheating, my heart went out not to his tens of millions of sports fans, but to the unknown number of cancer sufferers who might have benefited from his Livestrong charity. For, if I were one of those unfortunate ones, I might have felt that any health benefit resulting directly from the money raised through lies, lies and nothing but lies, and built on a foundation of callousness and greed, might not have been worth it — that I would much rather have fought The Emperor of all Maladies with my own whatever meagre resources.
Betrayal is not new to the world of sport. But this is the mother of all betrayals because it involves not just sports fans who watched cycle races for thrills; it is something that spears into the very core of our being as we begin to question our very humanity. How could so many have been so gullible for so long? How could one man have so successfully carried out a massive cover-up operation for as long as Armstrong managed to do?
“I tried to control the narrative,” Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey on Thursday night (Friday morning IST). And what sort of a narrative was that? Anything he apparently wanted to believe was good enough for his own self-advancement, as a celebrity, a multi-millionaire, and worst of all, as a role model for long suffering cancer patients. The point is, human beings are very good at self-deception; we are hard-wired for what psychologists call confirmation bias. We blithely go on to conclude that someone is a hero or another is a villain and hold on to those beliefs no matter the evidence confronting us.
When someone perceived widely as a hero and a great man has his life encrusted in myths, the real person (Armstrong) disappears from our view. And we don’t bother to look for him. “I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times,” said Armstrong. He was bloody clever. Our special gift as a species is for hard-wired vulnerability to believe repeated lies as truth. Surely, men and women who make their living talking to people who pay hefty sums to bare-all (psychologically) on couches can learn a thing or two from Armstrong.
Self-deception may have had its survival benefits in our species’ distant past, but not in the 21st century. It is not merely a question of being able to tell right from wrong, but one of idolising human-all-too-human demigods, whether they play sport at the highest levels or propagate some dubious New Age lifestyle or appear before us on cinema screens.
The philosopher, Stephen Law, referred to “intellectual blackholes” that gullible people are drawn into. But in Armstrong’s case, tens of millions all over the world were perhaps drawn into an ethical and moral blackhole — believing as they chose to do in the invincibility of the serial-doper’s iconography. To be sure, this is not an antediluvian rant by an unreconstructed Luddite; it is merely yet another attempt to bring to light our almost frightening and increasing vulnerability to fall prey to sporting predators — ones who, while focussing myopically on making money and earning fame, are happy to lose their moral compass.
“The mask eats the face,” wrote John Updike, rather kindly, on celebrity. And he was certainly not thinking of the sort of celebrity that Armstrong sought. All the time, we turned the mask that Armstrong chose to wear into a kind of universal poster for sporting heroism, a virtue that spilled over into cancer-care wards and, inevitably, into folklore.
The point is, when you dig up the garbage heap of the human soul and plumb its depths, there may be very few heroes left. If this story has turned into a first-of-its-kind moral narrative, then remember this: Lance Armstrong is no Robin Hood. He was no bleeding heart do-gooder who was stealing the rich and passing on the bounty for a good cause. He was a selfish, vainglorious, arrogant liar — the most cunning drug-cheat in the entire history of organised sport. Wallowing in the cocoon of his own specialness, as a rider and a human being, he took all of us for a ride we could have done without.
When I wrote in these columns on August 26, 2012, I had quite a few negative responses. But this is not a time to say I-told-you-so. Instead, this is a time to accept our own flawed humanity.
“We are the hollow men.
We are the stuffed men.
Leaning together.” — T.S. Eliot