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Monday 21 January 2013

Lance Armstrong Made You Look Stupid

It was a week when Luis Suarez spoke fairly candidly about the perception that he cheats (presumably in a bid to win over the public or at least stop people trying to hunt him for ivory - yes, that was a joke about his teeth - because it didn't do him any favours with his boss, football's answer to David Brent, Brendan "if you don't believe it, you can't achieve it" Rodgers), and Lance Armstrong's Oprah confessional was broadcast. In news terms, this was a week where crime and punishment in sports was a pervading theme. Well, that and imaginary dead Canadian women, but I am still far too confused by the whole Manti Te'o "Catfish" debacle to organize my thoughts into a post on that.

Lance Armstrong's fall from grace has been a story that has enthralled the sporting world, and rightly so - it's an interesting one that teaches us a lot about the way certain recesses of professional athleticism operate. However, the outrage accompanying it from some camps really teaches us more about the media's need to have a narrative, heroes, villains, triumph over adversity, the whole fucking Star Wars shebang, when it comes to sport.

This is why people are so pissed with Lance Armstrong, and why his punishment, which he somewhat histrionically refers to as a "death sentence", has been so much more severe than the punishments received by other cyclists found guilty of doping: he's done something far more offensive to the person on the street than cheating at cycling. He's defied the narrative created around him as a shining beacon of all that is good and pure, as a role model for the otherwise morally doomed children of our age, and he's made anyone who'd guzzled down that particular flavour of Kool-Aid look a bit fucking stupid.

Lance Armstrong had, you see, overcome cancer, and returned to his professional cycling career, only to reach even more amazing peaks of success. And we wanted that to be true, because in the narrative world only good people ever get cancer, and if the bastarding X factor has taught us anything over the past decade, only people with a tragic past deserve to win anything.

The thing is, first of all, cancer isn't really like that. Cancer is one of the fucked up flaws with the human body (well, animals get it too - which is super sad, especially when it's kittens - but you know what I mean), and can develop seemingly arbitrarily, in just about any organ, in anyone. In your lifetime, people you love will get it, but that doesn't mean it is some intelligent evil that preys on good people - there is just as much chance that, had he lived longer, Hitler would have got it too. The fact Lance Armstrong had cancer, therefore, doesn't tell us anything about him other than that he isn't superhuman. It was surviving it and picking his bike back up that made him one of the heroes the media believes we so badly need to keep us interested in sport.

Surviving cancer depends on a lot of factors, but it is widely known that mental fortitude can have a huge impact on your chances, providing other things are in your favour too. There is a lot to admire about someone being brave, determined and tough enough not only to get through the illness and the aggressive treatment, but also to stop cancer from preventing them from enjoying life and achieving their personal goals afterwards. There is even more to admire if they take their experiences and use them to try and do good for other people going through the same thing, by getting involved with charities. But apparently, it isn't enough to admire that in and of itself and find it inspiring when it is a celebrity rather than a nice lady you know. Because once the media has got its claws into someone's "narrative", the cost of admiration is the responsibility to behave like a saint, or face its wrath.

The other thing, then, is that sport isn't really like that either. Being the best at something, when it comes to sport, requires a lot of things - some inherent, some mental - but not one of them is "being a lovely person". Talent is also arbitrary, and that means that the highest echelons of sport are filled with the same complicated combination of personalities as most other populations. There are extremes of goodness and philanthropy and cuntish Joey Bartonyness, but most sportsmen, like the rest of us, exist somewhere in the middle, just sort of bodding about being human and sometimes a bit shit. And that shouldn't matter in sport. This is where this obsession with creating a narrative that fits with our age old understanding of how stories are supposed to go just shouldn't be applied to sport.

You see, while talent is arbitrary, results are absolute. If a guy is the fastest, or scores the most points, or has the most skill, then he is a sporting hero. It doesn't matter whether he has Didier Drogba's record of giving to charity or Kaka's story of triumph over adversity, or whether he's a perceived asshole who cheats on his wife or gets in fights outside of nightclubs - those things don't alter the results. Sport isn't a movie where you are likely to get the ending you want. Sport isn't there to teach us how to live better lives or to shine a light on the human fucking soul. It is ultimately, just a bunch of stuff that happened.

For me, that makes it better than a movie. It's not escapism, it's real, and that means it can still surprise you. There isn't that sense of security you get with knowing that, while you can't see how just yet, good will ultimately prevail and everything will make sense - and that's a sense of security that you can't always depend on in real life. But this is something the media, especially in America, struggles with, and why sportsmen falling from grace offends people more than really, it logically should.

When you build up a story about someone and get people to buy into it, sometimes it turns out to be a load of old crap, and that upsets people disproportionately to the actual crime committed, because as has been demonstrated, people get really fucking pissy when someone makes them look a fool.

Lance Armstrong cheated, and lied, and supposedly did a whole host of other things he isn't very proud of, like bullying people who threatened to call him out on his bad behaviour. But he isn't even the only one in his own peer group to do that. Be angry with him, by all means, for denying the people who should have won the 7 Tour de France trophies that now have no winner, be angry with him for making a mockery of the grand and noble sport of, er, cycling, but don't be angry with him for not turning out to be the fucking angel you were promised he was by an industry desperate to make every person of note's journey fit a literary template.

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