Friday, January 18, 2013

Lance Armstrong

In 2002, while training in Colorado, I started watching the Tour de France.  We would walk to the local bike shop and hang out on the sidewalk, watching the broadcast from a TV facing out of the shop.  Local athletes gathered here every day during the Tour to watch Lance Armstrong, waiting for the moments when, in a protracted endurance contest, a two-man battle would erupt.  Watching these guys hammer each other on the mountain passes was exhilarating.  For the next few years I kept following the Tour--on TV when I had cable, and online or in the newspapers when I didn't.  I am not a consumer of any popular sport (I don't even really follow running) and I'm not particularly a fan of cycling (it is necessarily too reliant upon the bike and the gear, and this dilutes the connection between the athlete and his pursuit).... but every endurance athlete could recognize what Lance was doing and could empathize, at least a little, with what drove him and with how he lived.

It wasn't until 2 or 3 years ago that I accepted his guilt as a blood doper and EPO user.  However justified, the nasty commentary surrounding his recent confession is missing some big points, things that it seems only an endurance athlete would recognize.

First, what matters to those of us interested in human athletic endeavor is that Lance (and virtually every cyclist in the 90's) performed within boundaries that were artificially extended.  I believe that, at the level of the Tour, the playing field was indeed level: anybody with a shot at beating Armstrong had a similar doping regime. Lance didn't cheat those guys. (Though he, and others, cheated the riders who never made it pro, or never made the tour, because of their refusal to dope. The sport owes these guys an apology and then some.) Nor did Lance cheat the fans.  (Perhaps he cheated cancer survivors, though.)  What matters here, I think, is that Lance and the other riders cheapened their pursuits by enhancing their biology through chemical means.  I would rather the marathon world record have remained at 2:10, or whatever, than the current 2:03, which is certainly tainted.  Putting aside the money, the real point to endurance sport is to celebrate the human machine, which is remarkable at covering long distances.  The body is built for it and the mind is shaped to support it.  Exactly where the limits are set is irrelevant; pushing up against those limits, using the basic tools of our will and our bodies, is the point to a sport like cycling. Of course, the line between natural and unnatural enhancement is blurry. Most of the world's population lives near sea level, yet many endurance athletes spend time at altitude (or worse, buy an altitude tent) to gain more red blood cells.  I hope that we can all agree, though, that needles certainly don't fall into the "natural enhancement" category.

Second, there is a misconception that doping makes the athlete.  Oprah implied again and again that Lance is a great athlete because of doping.  She really seemed to believe that he could pedal his bike for 30 minutes a day, take some pills, and win the Tour.  Lance, in no position to defend himself after years of lying, made a very weak attempt at correcting her: No, Oprah, I still had to ride 6 hours a day. I suffered and rejoiced in my training.  I planned my days around my ride, and I planned my life around 3 weeks in July every year, shaping my body and mind to be the perfect endurance machine.  This is what he was thinking; what he said was, "The doping was just like putting air in the tires. You train; you put air in the tires; you dope." The estimated 2% gain that effective doping provides the athlete does indeed cheapen the meaning of their performances, but Lance is still perhaps the greatest endurance athlete to have ever lived, and he lived this endurance lifestyle in an extreme way.  He understands the limits of his body and mind better than I do, and certainly better than anybody who would dismiss his athleticism as merely the result of a chemical cocktail.

What should we make of him? He is a liar and a cheater, made moreso by a sport that demanded it.  But he is also an extreme example of the endurance machine-- biologically and psychologically-- that is the human animal.

1 comment:

  1. "But he is also an extreme example of the endurance machine - biologically and psychologically - that is the human animal."

    I agree with the potential premise of this final sentence, though I was not aware that you accepted Lance Armstrong as a blood doper and EPO user 2-3 years ago.

    I would like to shift focus to the psychological components of masculine power as defined within the parameters of the white American historical context. Here we witness the classical refrains of Horatio Alger (pull oneself to prosperity by the propensity of one's own bootstraps) and Paul Bunyan - a man defined by the integrity of his strong back and axe. Beneath the benevolent and accessible veneer of both these men [among myriad] lies a rich backstory of hustling (read: to earn one's living by illicit or unethical means). America was and is built upon the cajoling and flapdoodle of influential players, perpetrated under the auspices of righteous action (aka the American Dream).

    The flavor may vary, though the substance remains the same: the degradation of authenticity for personal gains of power, privilege and profit. The actions of Lance Armstrong are no different than the ones so fervently railed against by Edward Abbey and Hunter S. Thompson, as these men sought to reform and refrain from cancerous growth.

    May this story serve as reminder of the precarious balance we all dance through thought, belief and action.