Since the USADA report on Lance Armstrong it has been impossible to open a paper, listen to the radio, or go online without reading something about him and the cycling culture when he was the capo dei capi. It is as if a dam has been burst and all the cycling journalists have at last been been given opportunity to vent what they secretly knew and other journalists, with little specialist knowledge, have leapt aboard feeling they must say something. There is now no need to say any more - and I don’t want to. Except ... except the story is so fascinating there are always little strands hanging out, tempting you to pull and I want to tug at the idea of the hero.
There was a good interview on PM with Paul Willerton, a former team mate of Armstrong, who had been publicly protesting that Nike should withdraw their sponsorship. At one stage, after some sympathetic questioning, he got slightly emotional as he thought about the bullying Greg Lemond received and in that one small moment gave a little insight into how tough it must have been to live through the era and question the prevailing culture. The ability of someone (it could be anyone but in this case it was Lance Armstrong) to have enough power to be able to mobilise overwhelming force and relentlessly pursue anyone who got in their way, is one of the aspects of the affair that deserves further exploration. Perhaps a full analysis will be done but a part of the answer is related to something else Willerton said:
Nike wanted to create a Prefontaine figure; a legend out of someone who was merely a man. Nike didn’t care about cycling what they really cared about was taking someone like Lance Armstrong and moulding him into a marketing machine.
This is spot on. The whole story of the recovery from cancer and the determination and raw sporting ability required to come back and conquer his sport is definitely the stuff of legend. Inspite of anything else it is a story of resolve and mental and physical strength. Obviously it has now been invalidated by the industrial scale of the drug taking (i.e. cheating) and his behaviour to others but while that was under wraps his profile was, in a sporting sense, heroic. This was exploited by Nike and Trek to shift huge amounts of product and build the brand in the public imagination. As they wanted to be associated with greatness so that a little bit of it could rub off on anybody who bought their goods, it was in their interests to build-up the extraordinariness of their champion. In doing so the attention and money they gave to Armstrong enhanced his stature, built and then reinforced his power. How could the UCI remain uninfluenced by a man who had presidents in his phone address book and was iconic in the American market? How could foot soldiers in the peloton, or others associated with the sport, stand-up to his might?
It is an illustration of the trend in modern capitalism - the concentration of power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands, whilst the rest of us are given the opportunity to bathe in pool of their reflected glory. In this case though it was also allied to the way our appreciation of sport has evolved from recreation, to support for the local team, to an industry built on celebrating champions we are encouraged to identify with. In such a system the ones at the top really do have all the power and the status of Lance Armstrong meant he could control his world.
The question is though not whether he was or was not a hero but why we need such figures at all. For sure we all need exemplars and people who can embody our human potential but what forces so many of us to invest so much of ourselves in the impossible virtue of our champions? What is our hunger for myths?
Perhaps I should repeat these famous lines of Brecht:
Andrea: Unhappy the land that has no heroes
Galileo: No, unhappy the land in need of heroes