Lance Armstrong and the Cult of Personality

I know I’m trudging into this dirty pool a little late, but I’ve been away and actually busy for a change. I’m back home in France now and I’d just like to throw my two centimes into the fray about this whole LA mess, if I may.

For those of us who have followed LA’s career (like many of you, I got hooked on pro cycling because of him), and have looked for something to read other than the narrative he and his admirers have been so carefully cultivating all these years, what has transpired recently comes as no surprise at all. The evidence has always been out there, albeit not nearly as damning or in one place, like the USADA’s lethal report. We now all know the names of the brave, few dissenters, who dared to cross Lance (Paul Kimmage, Betsy Andreu and Greg Lemond, being three of the earliest and most steadfast), but these people, and more, have had something to say about this case for many years.

The trouble was, we didn’t want to look because nobody wanted to believe it. This, to me, is really, really interesting. An illuminating comment I had on Facebook a few weeks back sums up what I imagine many people were feeling – ‘I’m really disappointed. I so much wanted him to be innocent.’

Why on earth would we not want to believe that Lance Armstrong is human, and therefore full of faults like the rest of us? Why do we need heroes so badly and why do we demand that they be infallible (maybe Dr. James can take a stab at that last one)? Why are our illusions shattered when someone like LA comes crashing down in front of our eyes?

This phenomenon goes well beyond sports, of course. Right now we are watching an advertising campaign, more than a political campaign, going on in the US, based for most part, on the cult of personality, rather than platforms. Many of us have carefully created stories about our parents, our countries, our ethnic groups and ourselves, choosing what fits into the story we want to cultivate, while tossing out the rest.

Then I got to wondering why I don’t feel this way about anyone and why I don’t have any heroes. The paradox here is that the reason can be found in one of my favorite narratives from my own life…oh the irony!

This curiously-dressed guy was my karate teacher for many years. He was, without a word of exaggeration, like a god to me for most of my youth. There is a long, sordid history that follows, but I only tell it when half drunk (I’m not quite there at the moment..) and feeling sorry for myself. But the short of it is, he ended up being a fraud and a crook, and within a violently short period of time a little over 20 years ago, any illusions I had about heroes was good a truly shattered.

However, I always look back at that moment in my life as being one of the most critical points of learning and transformation that I’ve lived through, and I wouldn’t change it for any other outcome. Thanks to this experience many years ago, when I meet someone who seems to be too good to be true (or not even too good to be true), I always think ‘skeleton…closet’. I find life easier that way, and I never get disappointed.

I had a lot riding on my version of this guy’s story and when I discovered that most of it was completely fabricated and people were getting hurt because of it, it was a very hard pill to swallow. I suppose this is similar, in a way, to the legions of Lance fans who had invested time, effort, and often money (Coach Rob can tell you how much he charged for the privilege of hearing him speak) would certainly not want to believe that his perfect story had a few important chapters left out.

I guess, in the end, what I want to say to those who had a hard time letting go of the lie (my assumption here is that nobody still is) is that this may not really be a story about the reality of Lance Armstrong, but more about ourselves and our own illusions.


Wow, that was heavy. Must be the deep freeze I just came back to in France. I promise something more uplifting next blog post!

7 thoughts on “Lance Armstrong and the Cult of Personality

  1. Thanks for a good, thoughtful post. Yes, a story about ourselves and illusions. Yes, mostly people do seem to need heros, and yes, that could explain a lot of dysfunction in society. Perhaps the comic book heros that children so often love are safer to believe in than living people.

    For my two bits, never having cared much about Armstrong, or having held him as a hero, I’m not disappointed in his doping. I do find his bullying, ostracizing, shameful behavior toward other cyclists and non-cyclists, along with the probable collusion of governing bodies, to be foul. To use a simple, old-fashioned four-letter word. And don’t I just wonder whatever happened to the Navitzky investigation. Perhaps the freedom of information request filed will bring something out about that little secret. Perhaps not. It is a dirty pool, as you said, for far more reasons than doping in cycling.

    “Uplifting” can be hard to find sometimes, but pushing pedals around outside on a bike is usually effective.

  2. I feel that a lot of the problem comes from journalists (and this particularly applies to sports hacks) who feel that they need to be close to the people they write about and are afraid to be realistic for fear of losing access. Our feelings about people in the public are very much filtered through the media and the more successful you are, the more you can control access and reporting.

    I am with Suze in that I couldn’t feel a lot of warmth for Armstrong in spite of his great ability as a cyclist but if he had been British I might well have been more inclined to like him but it’s hard to tell.

    I find the whole thing very sad because cycling (the activity itself, not the sport) is such a pure thing though I know it sounds silly to say that.

    Thanks for a good post, Gerry. I’m sorry about your horrible brush with reality in earlier times. I try to retain some optimistic illusions. Chris Hoy looks like a good chap.

    • Yes, there are so many facets of this thing to talk about and the media has a lot to answer for, you’re completely right. And as for the patriotic reflex you touched upon, I’m sure it’s no surprise that some of the biggest of LA’s condemners have been from France, while his most fervent supporters are North American. Our heroes should also be like us – an important criterion.

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