“To hell, to hell with balance! I break glasses; I want to burn, even if I break myself. I want to live only for ecstasy. Nothing else affects me. Small doses, moderate loves, all half-shades, leave me cold. I like extravagance, heat… I’m neurotic, perverted, destructive, fiery, dangerous – lava, inflammable, unrestrained.” – Anais Nin.
Let’s talk about Lance, for something entirely different of late. I’ll probably lose a few friends over this blog, but I’ll risk it to express my opinion. I’m an elite athlete. I love my sport, I love to compete, and I love to win. If Lance’s lifetime ban is removed, apparently he wants to run some marathons – infringing on my world, where many of us are struggling for funding and most have never doped. We endure immense weekly mileages, ongoing injuries, financial woes, lack of recognition, and the personal demoralisation of having to race Kenyans. We do all this with little (no) promise of fame or fortune. But I still love Lance. So sue me.
Most who know me will also know that I idolised Lance Armstrong from an early age. I do not regret having him as the only athlete of influence during my childhood, and I will even now not waver from my belief that Lance is a legend. I needed a sporting figure to motivate me to be the best, not to merely ‘participate’ as the trending equality philosophy in schools emphasises. Enter, Lance Armstrong. Coming back from the brink of death, becoming the face of the fight against cancer, and going on to win seven Tour de France titles at a time when the sport was rife with doping. It takes more than a ‘sophisticated doping regime’ to do that; it takes passion, motivation, and an inhuman desire to be indestructible.
I’m glad I didn’t know Lance was doping when I was younger. Not because I would have ditched him as the only athlete I have ever idolised, but because I would have considered doing it too. Cheating is motivated by the underlying desire to have worth as a person, and I can understand this desire. It becomes problematic when we believe that we only have worth insofar as we are winning; to ground our worth in such momentary attempts at glory seems ridiculous. But that is the nature of elite athletes and sport – it is all-consuming; we are all just a little bit crazy. We don’t just want to win; we want to matter, to be relevant. The question is, how crazy are you? How far are you willing to go to be the best version of you? Do the drugs still allow you to be ‘you’, merely an enhanced version? A better version of the best version of you?
“We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.” – Tobias Wolff.
Lance Armstrong persisted. At age 25 he was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer which spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. From moments of staring death in the face, and despite the consensus among his specialists, he recovered and became an athlete again. (Novak Djokovic, who commented publicly that he hopes “Lance suffers” likely could not fathom the suffering a cancer patient endures on a daily basis, particularly during cycles of chemotherapy). I’m inclined to say that doping merely put him back on a level playing field with other regular athletes – without even delving into the popular belief that most successful cyclists of that era were doping anyway. The New York Times on Friday (along with probably every newspaper on the planet) posted an article on the first half of the Oprah/Lance (now being called ‘Doprah’) interview. It finished by commenting:
“But throughout Winfrey’s interview, Armstrong failed to do the one thing many people had been waiting for: he failed to apologise directly to all the people who believed in him, all the cancer survivors and cycling fans who thought his fairy-tale story was true. Not once did he look into the camera and say, without qualification, ‘I’m sorry.'”
This doesn’t sit well with me. Lance is under no obligation to apologise, and in many ways there is no reason for him to apologise. To the cancer survivors: there is no disputing what Lance’s Livestrong Foundation has achieved in promoting awareness of the disease, fighting for the sufferers, and raising millions of dollars for research (the charity has raised over $470 million in the fight against cancer). There is no apology needed there. Not to mention that his doping does not change the fact that he survived against all odds. Agreed, he cheated the sport, he cheated clean athletes of medals and fame, but more importantly, he cheated himself. He has to live with that, and not one of us can proclaim to know how he is doing it.
So Lance may not be a hero after all. In a society which is becoming increasingly desensitised and cynical, it seems heroes are few and far between. Why is it that our champions have become so likely to cheat? Why has the compulsion to win become so intense that they will compromise their integrity to do so? This is not a sociological issue but a human one. We create heroes and villains of professional athletes, and this is our first mistake. They are neither; they are not archetypes of people, just mere human beings capable of error and living in a broken world. This saga has not made me vilify Lance; it has led me to identify with him. I see myself in him, and this does not make me a bad person.
I’m hearing that Lance only cares about Lance, that he values money and fame and titles more than integrity and honesty. I disagree. To me, the drive that pushed Lance into this spiral of lies was a paralysing terror of forfeiting an identity. He associated himself and his self-worth with an idealised narrative, and I believe his self-deception was far greater than any public deception. He constructed a perfect identity for himself and in the end was unable to let it go, to admit to himself that he is human. We all do this, on a smaller scale. Every day we perpetuate idealised public identities and confuse them with who we truly are. We do it with the jobs we have, the clothes we wear, the way we speak, the cars we drive, the Facebook pictures we post, the Twitter hashtags we use … We become progressively lost in them. Who are we, really? Does anyone know?
People are calling this Lance’s fall from grace. Do we even understand the concept of grace? In religious terms, we often define it via the ‘bad things’ we’ve done and say that in God’s eyes, these don’t matter. There is a flipside to this – the good things don’t matter either. Nobody is willing to admit that how we live doesn’t matter, that our choices are our own, and that in terms of acceptance and justification, the good and the bad are irrelevant. We want, we need, the world to have right and wrong; to be in black and white. Unfortunately, the world is rather grey. It is all a matter of construction. We’ve now seen Lance’s ‘black’, but there is ‘white’ there too – he’s both. He’s grey, just like us all.
“For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18.
I am a strong believer in forgiveness, and I (as a relatively unaffected outsider) will forgive Lance’s actions in a heartbeat. Perhaps I would have done the same, who knows? I acknowledge that there are many sports out there barely tainted by the use of drugs, and that for every one ‘cheat’ there are 99 athletes struggling to make it on their own – without a coach, without support, without drugs, without sponsorship, without employment. I know most of these athletes will label Lance a disgrace to the entire sporting world. Fair play is an integral part of being a professional, and he breached this philosophy. His actions will make many athletes believe their endeavours are meaningless; I feel this myself. But then I remind myself why I idolised him as a child, and the fact is, he remains an inspiration to me. He survived when he was told there was no hope. And that is what matters.
From the doping perspective, I pity Lance. I have heard many harsh words thrown around about him, but the truth is I sincerely feel for an athlete with his potential who was reduced to believing that the only way he could be someone of worth was through drugs. Where are all the people who are truly happy with the person they are right now, in this moment? In today’s world of social media and disconnection, in a world of paradox where a false sense of sociability is found in being completely anti-social, I see few people out there living. Here is how I see the world: talented poets photographing a sunset and describing it with a few hashtags; people with beautiful imaginations reducing their thoughts to 140 characters for a Twitter update; lonely shadows updating their status in the early hours of the morning as if to say, “Hello, is anyone out there?” and waiting for another stranger to make an empty observation on the originally meaningless update – “I’m alive! Notice me!”… We are shrinking into a culture of digital narcissism, we become an avatar surrounded by words, and our hearts and minds shrink in accordance.
Most of you don’t even know me. I’m a ghost in the machine, a voicing of random thoughts, today just an opinion on a fallen legend. We self-righteously critique a man using our status updates or writing newspaper columns rather than looking inward at ourselves. Lance is human, and so are we all. What are you doing wasting your one beautiful life by judging someone else’s? Dying is easy, as I daresay Lance realised at several points in his battle against cancer. Living is hard. We realise this every day. But that is the beautiful complexity of being human. Step away from your screens, your technology, your desire for social approval. Become intoxicated on life. Write a hand-written letter instead of sending a Facebook message. Tell someone, “I love you,” rather than texting ‘ILY’. Do not participate in what you do not believe in. Live out your true passion. This is life, and there are no rules except that you must live it.
“Life is once, forever.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson.
We are all entitled to our opinions. You can call Lance what you like, and I will not say a word other than in this post. You can say the only reason he came clean is to take the first step toward mitigating his lifetime ban. And you know what? This only makes me admire him more. To be so passionate about sport, so engaged in his life and living it the way he envisaged that he would admit to doping just to be able to compete again – it exposes a drive I wish I had. (As he said to Oprah: “If you’re asking me if I want to compete again? The answer is hell yes. I’m a competitor, it’s what I’ve done my whole life. I love to train, I love to race, I love to toe the line.”)
I only hope that somewhere along the way, Lance discovers who he really is, and that self-worth does not come solely from winning. That he can admit to himself that he is human, and there is nothing wrong with that. And to all of us judging someone else on the way they choose to live their life, I hope we can learn to live our own. You may see Lance as a disappointment, a failure, a hypocrite, a villain; but look inside at your own life, look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are living the life you imagined. Do you believe in yourself and your worth as a human being?
To me, Lance Armstrong is still a legend. Not because he won seven Tour de France titles – although regardless of whether or not he was on drugs, I believe this is an incredible accomplishment. He is a legend because he is human. He inspired me because he survived. Surviving is what we do every single day. Despite the odds, we live in this flawed world as beautiful souls doing the very best with what we have at any given moment. How another person does their best is not for me to critique. I can only endeavour to be the best version of me.
“To be nobody but yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you life everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight – and never stop fighting.” – e. e. cummings.