Lance Armstrong: No Pity

The philosopher Hilary Putnam famously argued that, “meanings ain’t in the head.” In other words, it’s possible to talk meaningful about X even if you personally can’t distinguish X from Y. The reason for this is that other people might have the required expertise about X and Y. To use a language as a tool depends on the social context more than what is in your brain. Language is a public thing, something we share, something we use to connect or disconnect.

Let me give an example: What do we talk about when we talk about Lance Armstrong? Some might talk about whether he is cheater, whether he deserves his titles, whether he was a tough leader of US Postal, etc. The meaningfulness of these questions depends on the context. Just as what is morally right or wrong depends upon social circumstances, for instance, a person’s form of life or cultural background.

For a simple example we might ask: Is Armstrong being punished severely hard because so many other athletes (especially bikeriders) have done their share of doping undiscovered? Is Armstrong paying the price for the falling reputation of cycling as such? Is Armstrong the scapegoat of UCI’s lack of capability to ensure a clean race? Is the sentence (stripped of titles and lifetime ban) based more on an explosion of feeling rather than reason (afterall the UCI president, Pat McQuaid, later told that he felt disgusted after reading the USADA-report)? Is Armstrong being punish so severely, because he was (is) such a big icon?

Let us move on. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once stated that we all deserve the feelings, thoughts and emotions that we are having. The questions that Deleuze proposes are: “Does this feeling, increase our power of action or not?” – “Does it help us to come into full possession of that power?” Basically, it is only when one is not free that one feels impotent. So, who is impotent in this story?

It is obvious that many people feel cheated. Parents complain that Armstrong was not a true hero for their kids; people say that he was a fake inspiration; sponsors claim that he represents the wrong set of values, etc. All the comments, of course, resemble what the involved deserves. For instance, if Armstrong inspired me back in 2000, then what? Should I go back in time and claim that the inspiration I felt was wrong, should I refuse to acknowledge that I needed the push that he gave me? Similar, should a parent refuse to admit that he or she as well has a responsibility to explain to his or her kid why Armstrong did as he did, for instance, put Armstrong’s wrongdoing in perspective. It might open up for an interesting conversation between father and son. Afterall the most important role-models for kids are their parents, not Armstrong, Zidane or Agassi.

Okay, what is the overall context? Business seems to be the answer. Sport is business, but so is everything else – including moral. When something did not smell right, all of Armstrong’s sponsors abandon him. The question is whether Nike and Trek would refund my money, because I once bought a Trek-bike solely because of Armstrong. If not, then, of course, they should stop the hypocrisy.

Writing all this, I might sound like a fan of Armstrong; I’m not. I‘m not a fan-kind-of-guy. Furthermore, during those years I was hoping for Ulrich. But even now, after the huge amount of evidence from many sad people (grown ups who apparently could not take a decision by themselves, and now needs to justify this lack of personal responsibility by blaming another), I still see Armstrong as an extraordinary athlete. Armstrong might be tough, he might be a bastard, he might be arrogant, but reading the Tour-story most of the winners aren’t exactly Santa Claus. Instead they are pushing their bodies to the limit. They live on the limit of their capabilities, doing what is necessary to follow their desires. Eddy Merck was afterall called “the cannibal”. If this is too much to handle, then maybe one should drop elite sport and stick with Disney.

Going back to Putnam’s statement, then the context is, next to business, elite athletes. Here nothing comes for free. Or as the biochemist Chris Cooper says in Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: ”Laboratory tests are almost never on elite athletes … Instead normal healthy athletes are used. However, elite athletes are abnormal. We are not even sure that the biochemical mechanism underpinning a performance enhancement in the average athlete are exactly the same as in the elite athlete.” And later: “There is no substitute for time spent in the gym.”

Do I then salute Armstrong’s use of EPO and blood doping? No, but it doesn’t really change the picture: He won the Tour de France seven times. He was the best. When I read the confession of other athletes, then it becomes clear what actually was the tipping point – especially if you read The Secret Race thoroughly. Hamilton might be able to grid his teeth, but he did not have the same amount of willpower, self-discipline and self-control as Armstrong. Hamilton obviously lacks self-esteem, but self-esteem comes as a result of self-discipline and self-control, it seems like he naively thought it could come the other way around. In the book, Hamilton also tries to use Armstrong’s desire to win to show how inhuman Armstrong was. Yes, on a family-come-together-level he might be, but anyone who wants to be the best will in the eyes of his or her peers – once in awhile – be considered an asshole. On a psychological level it’s a childish book (but interesting regarding its description of Hamilton’s extensive use of doping). I guess even the Holy Pope might have used an elbow once or twice in the cabinet.

The Armstrong-case is interesting, because it poses new questions. What is a human being capable of? Where do we draw the line between constitutive rule and strategic rules in sport? (Armstrong was following the rules otherwise he would have been disqualified long ago)? What does sport tell us about the society we live in? Are we in general too obsessed with winning and then, afterwards, overwhelmed with a feeling of remorse and guilt? Just like Christmas-time can be a time for love, kiss and donations, so we can go on living like we do for another eleven months. Do we need something bad in order to appear good? The moral in this story is that only the hero or villain change, the rest remains business as usual.

Personally, I couldn’t care less if Armstrong admits or not. If he chooses to, however, I do hope that it will not be a pathetic performance like Tiger Woods that forever have made it impossible for me to wear Nike. Some might say that Armstrong only will admit if he gains something, for instance, a reduction of his penalties; some might call him calculative, strategic, etc. I guess he is, but does this make him that different from the rest of us? How many of us do deliberately take decisions where we consciously know that we will not benefit from it? Maybe he just wants to continue with his life. Maybe all the turbulence has made him aware.

So, do I feel pity for Armstrong, of course not. But, to judge is far to easy, I leave that for those who have these preferences. Basically, it is not moral we need, but the courage to face the world we live in. Understanding one another may be hard, but it never starts with judging, just as it doesn’t require that we come to agreement. Instead it requires an interest in the people that we live with. For instance, people who cheat, people who judge, people who feel betrayed by its broken illusions, etc. Armstrong is too good a story to be forgotten.

Let us see what 2013 brings.

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