Usually, I have a routine. I’ll sit down and begin writing a blog post with the first things that come into my mind, then go back and delete them and replace them with the finer observations – the things that only come to mind after sitting and thinking for some time. Those things that are guided by empathy and understanding, examining what it must be like to be in a certain person’s shoes. Much of the time, this process happens in reasonable time, and I eventually arrive at what I feel is a fairly solid conclusion — that’s not to say it won’t change and evolve over time, but usually I am at least happy with leaving things at that. Or as happy as any writer can be. The Lance Armstrong story presents a problem for this technique, and writers, on a number of levels. Now he’s finally come out and told the world what so many people suspected – that he really is a cheat, and nearly always has been – there’s too much information to sift through and assimilate right now. I could sit here all week and come-up with a thousand different starting points. It seems that every time I think about this story and how it’s progressed, how it is progressing, my opinion changes and things shift a few degrees: sometimes I remember the Lance Armstrong who beat cancer multiple times and I smile, while other times I feel just as cheated as everyone else. Stupid for being taken in. Sad about it all. Mainly, though, I’m astonished and bewildered. Partly at my own naive wanting to believe that none of this was true, but partly…so much more as well. Then, every once in a while, I find myself thinking about what state-of-mind this man must have been in for so many years. It’s with this thought that things start to come into focus, finally, if there ever is a solid conclusion, which seems debatable right now. It gets more comfortable. The fact, from the looks of it, is that Lance Armstrong struggles with comprehending and understanding what he’s done wrong — how ruining people’s lives is bad and unacceptable human behaviour that people will not tolerate. And if he’s unable to truly comprehend the scale of his mistakes now, then what must he have been like while it was all going on?
First, a few notes:
1: Forget for a moment that Lance Armstrong doped relentlessly during all 7 of his Tour de France wins – the man was still an incredible, unbelievable athlete. Yes he was boosted by the drugs, as were some of his team-mates, but his achievements were still monumental — the drive, the dedication, the single-minded commitment to winning at all costs. That’s stuff that will never go away, even if it is tainted. I’m no expert on EPO, the drug which manipulates red blood cells into carrying more oxygen, enhancing performance, but I’m certain that not just anybody can get on a racing bike and win races like Lance did. This throws us into a state of pure anger and confusion…we can’t take back how we felt when he won those races, the emotions his winning stirred up in us all, the hope he gave us, and that fuels intense fury. So we’re left with an athlete who was never really a true, fair athlete. Or a man who we just can’t understand and don’t want to. Believe what you want to believe.
2: On Oprah, Lance Armstrong made admissions. The word Sorry even crept in there once, and, who knows, there may be more to come in due course. I haven’t watched the full interview everyone’s talking about just yet, but from what I have seen from various clips, he recognises now, at least on some level, that he was in the wrong. Not that this helps any of us much. It would be hard to label Armstrong’s appearance on the show as anything other than an academic acknowledgment of the truth – a genuine apology to us all it was not.
Which puts us on ground we don’t really know how to navigate. Should we even begin to think about forgiving Lance’s wrongs, yet?
Personally, right now, I don’t think it’s the time to forgive. We’re way too close to it all to see the bigger picture. Everything I have read about Lance Armstrong over the years proves one solid thing: none of us know the real man here, we all just think we did. The man who, some say, has serious mental health problems. And of course, with all this coming to light, who can blame them for thinking that?
It comes down to empathy, really, and by the sound and looks of the interview he gave Oprah, Lance Armstrong has a serious lack of it. A dangerous lack of it, you might say. This statement will come of little surprise to those who have encountered split-opinion about the man over the years – many have called him a sociopath, and that’s hardly a surprise, either. Sociopaths are sometimes but not always known as people with Antisocial Personality Disorder, and, serious as it is, it’s hardly an uncommon thing. People with this disorder are often charming and highly driven, to name but two things, but the negative pay-off is enormous. In extreme cases, these people are completely unable to care about other people, giving them the edge when it comes to acting with ruthless intent. That’s to say they can probably go through the motions of caring, but this is a learned and testing thing, rather than basic human instinct that comes naturally. They know they should care but they simply cannot, and that is just the start of a huge range of interpersonal and philosophical problems which go on and on. Things which only trained psychologists and the very-well-read can truly get to grips with (note: I’m not suggesting I am very well read on the subject, but from what I have read, this is the case).
And so the picture changes once again. Viewing Lance Armstrong as an almost supernaturally driven entity, a man who just simply couldn’t quit, it’s almost impossible to think he could have acted in any other way (a statement that doesn’t feel right to make, seeing as up until recently there was so much conflicting information about the truth and what that may or may not be). Looking at all the evidence, it seems that the only way he could have avoided cheating is if he hadn’t ever have become a cyclist. Had Lance excelled in another area, then no doubt he’d likely still have cheated, but the exposure – the story – wouldn’t have been worldwide. How many quietly confident sociopaths must exist in office buildings all over the world?
Which brings us to another point: the Tour De France alone is a story of immense power and charm, and that’s before you even talk about Lance’s amazing story of overcoming all the odds. A story which everyone got behind for very good reason. Maybe the reason we’re all so pissed off about this is because it all comes together to form such an unusual story we don’t know what to do with. While cheating at the highest level is hardly a new thing, this specific level of disregard for the rules and will to evade — combined with the overcoming-cancer-victories — is something of a unique entity that doesn’t come along too often. With hardly anything else to compare it to, Lance Armstrong has, ironically, achieved one impressive thing that will last far longer than his previous legend: he’s become just as universally hated as he was once so thoroughly adored. Not an easy thing to do — one thing Lance clearly was was a fantastically gifted cheat.
Of course, the fact that Armstrong might have a severe, high-functioning mental illness, doesn’t mean he is absolved of all responsibility and that our understanding and empathy should be charged with resolving it all. It just means that we’re the ones who can’t win and are stuck with not knowing what the hell to think. For Lance, he can apologise and apologise and eventually, it’s going to sink in with some people. Some will forgive. For many, it’ll be a natural thing. The rest of us have to make do with the fact that we’ll never truly understand why he did these things. We’ll also have to build our trust for sports personalities and other high-ranking individuals back up once again.
Armstrong’s legacy is now properly an endless one, and the issue of trust isn’t going to be resolved any time soon, if ever. No matter how many interviews he gives, he’ll never be able to transform that fact.