Devil’s Advocate is a regular column assuming an alternate viewpoint on a topical subject of the week.
There’s nothing worse in life than when you deny something, then are faced with a 1000-page report explaining in excruciating detail just how guilty you are of being a complete bastard.
With that in mind, yesterday must have been something of a nadir for Lance Armstrong, which is saying something. After all, this is a man who has experienced such crushing lows and stupendous highs that him having a middling, boring day seems about as likely as a power-drunk Justin Bieber getting off his face on hallucinogens and trying to ride a gold-encrusted phoenix to the moon – instead, just being given a piggyback by a nonplussed bouncer around the stage, drooling uncontrollably as easily pleased Beliebers cheer on regardless.
It feels faintly ludicrous to wonder whether Armstrong can cope with the bad publicity, given that we’re talking about a man who was apparently given only a 40% chance of surviving testicular cancer in his mid-20s, only to recover and then dominate – for a number of years – one of the greatest sporting events in the world.
Nevertheless, it’s a real shame that this hero and inspiration to millions has been treated so shoddily. It seems ridiculously harsh that he has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles – and banned from sport for life – in such a callous, ice-cold fashion.
Well, this much needs to be made clear: Lance is still a hero. And if he is guilty of doping it doesn’t make much of a difference. If anything, it makes him more brilliant.
The facts are these: a great sportsman was cut down in his prime, and somehow fought back from the brink of death itself to become one of the most highly regarded sportspeople ever.
Unfortunately, before knowing what he was getting himself into, he had been placed into a sport riddled with dope cheats. Rather than turning tattletale, something that would ruin the lives of his friends and make him an outcast, he and members of his team reportedly used those same illicit methods as many others did, in what has been described as the “most sophisticated doping programme ever”.
It’s not as though he was rolling around in a luxurious bubble bath with supermodels for most of the day, then injecting himself with cheetah DNA and sprinting off to success despite putting in no effort whatsoever. He was beating his peers solidly, and training harder than anyone reading this could possibly imagine.
Armstrong was a champion, and operating with a champion’s mindset. Given that most of his accusers didn’t speak out at the time, how can he himself have been expected to do so, especially at a moment in time when children and other impressionable individuals around the world were looking up to him?
While he may have realised what he was doing should be unacceptable, Armstrong was deep within a culture that didn’t encourage playing by the rules. And if his team-mates were using the same drugs he was – with others also injecting themselves full of all sorts of gubbins (that’s the scientific term I think) – then surely that was, in its own shonky manner, something of a level playing field?
If the cyclist was indeed a dope cheat, by telling the truth he would have been letting down not only his colleagues, but ruining the good work of charities that had been funded through his endeavours. To give you an example of what was at stake – and the pressure he would have been under – the Lance Armstrong Foundation says on its website that it has raised more than $470 million since its inception in 1997.
Living with his guilt would have seemed a small price for Armstrong to pay to keep such an amazing stream of money flowing to good causes, even though it must have at the same time been a huge burden to carry. (Knowing that those who had come clean would be caught in the crossfire.)
Perhaps, if he had been told at the start of his career what would be in store for him, he could have chosen a different path. However, as it was he did the very best he could – again, far better than the vast majority of us ever will – despite the obstacles that were put in his way, and the path that he was railroaded into.
And as for him cheating, then so what? Much as hokey pseudo-philosophers might like the children of the world to believe it, there has never been – and never will be – a true level playing field. Somebody will be taller than you, thinner than you, brainier than you, hairier than you, more effete than you, have bigger eyelashes than you – whatever your dream, some undeserving bozo will have a massive head start due to nature, nurture or some heady brew of both.
Breaking the rules is something that almost everyone has done. Personally I’ve done it loads of times, and if you’re ever playing Monopoly against me, bear this in mind: I’LL DO IT AGAIN. It rarely pays to be a loser (unless you’re the sort of sad sack who can construct a profitable life story out of it), so why should we expect anyone to settle for second best, even when that’s what they deserve to be?
Trying to get around our own disadvantages is one of the most human parts of participating in any competitive event – under circumstances as extreme as Armstrong’s you should hardly be able to blame him, however high and mighty you might consider yourselves to be.
Much of the anger towards Armstrong appears directed at him because he was (allegedly) such a brilliant cheat. But wouldn’t his daring deception actually be a thing of wonder? All those eyes on him, and he still managed to be beat the system for years.
Copperfield and Blaine receive thunderous applause and multimillion-dollar deals for their slights of hand, yet they have never so successfully pulled the wool over the public’s eyes as one headstrong cyclist (allegedly) did. The ultimate illusionist, perhaps Armstrong didn’t deserve those Tour de France titles strictly for his cycling efforts, but he deserves them ten times over for all the amazing things he’s done in front of his life, whether or not they always involved playing by the rulebook.
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