So here’s a hypothetical situation:
A person–maybe someone you know, maybe someone you love, maybe someone you heard of in a story from a friend–was diagnosed with cancer. This person, it is said, chose not to undergo chemotherapy treatment; likewise, he refused any and all other available medicines.
Because, and here’s the kicker, he equated treatment to “cheating.”
Would you not think this response asinine?
What he sees as cheating death, you see as cheating life. What he sees as an unfair advantage over other cancer patients, and the disease itself, you see as doing what is necessary to succeed. What he sees as having negative secondary effects, you see as ignoring the primary reason he is in the hospital.
And that’s the real argument I see being made in Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie.
Gibney, whom plays the part of narrator, tells the audience that the documentary had been a long time in gestation. He admits that when he began creating the movie in 2009, he intended to document Lance’s return to the sport of cycling after spending four years in retirement. Shortly after Lance returned however, so did the allegations that Lance was blood-doping. What started out as a documentary of the hero’s return ended, as this journey often does, with a heavy dose of heroic hubris.
Gibney’s narration plays a key role in the audience perception of the Lance. I like to think that Gibney’s perception is much like our own—somewhere in between the double yellow lines of empathy for the American athlete standing atop the podium pedestal, and disgust for a public figure subject to the repercussions of his own lying, cheating, and fraud.
Yet, with all the negative hype and attention brought to the Sestina Affair, after seeing The Armstrong Lie, I can’t seem to blame Lance Armstrong. Here are a couple of reasons why:
- I wasn’t aware of this before the film, but blood-doping was an issue before Lance even put himself on the line at the Tour de France. In fact, the Tour de France’s commissioning body was looking for something, or someone, to help the public regain faith in the tour after the 1998 Tour ended with a number of the top riders testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
- Though Lance took the brunt of the blame, he was hardly the only cyclist doping. Those not really knowledgeable about the sport, which I am not (though the movie does supplement nicely) may not be aware that at least 58 professional cyclists were either indicted on charges of, or banned from professional sports governed by USADA and/or WADA for, using illegal/banned/performance-enhancing supplements.
- Lance was going to win—one way or another. He was just made that way. His prowess and drive were evident from the beginning of his athletic career (which began for Armstrong in highschool a he competed in cross country). He wanted to win, and entered into competition with this goal, and this goal alone. It logically follows then that if it took blood-doping to win, he was going to do it.
Herein I invoke my initial hypothetical. Lance’s fight with cancer shaped his outlook on life. His battle with testicular cancer wasn’t one in which “losing” in the conventional athletic sense was an option. To lose would have meant to die.
So for Lance, simply winning the battle against cancer wouldn’t be enough. He wasn’t going to simply “survive” the ordeal—he was going to come out on top. He sought out the most cutting edge treatments for testicular cancer—a type of chemo-therapy treatment that would treat him, but not do so at the expense of scarring his lungs, which would allow him to return to cycling after the ordeal. He did not want simply to live, but to live well.
Lance went on and then applied this ideology to racing—why simply race when you can race well? It would not be enough to simply engage in the battle, he would have to win the war. When he entered into professional cycling, blood doping was the norm—everyone did it—so why would he simply dope when he could have the best? And so just as he sought the top medicine and team of medical professionals, he would seek also the best doctors and physicians in sports medicine—Dr. Mikele Ferari.
I can’t seem to blame Lance Armstrong. How can it be considered “cheating” when the word “cheating” means, as he defined it, “to have an unfair advantage over the rest of the field”? Really, he wouldn’t have been doing himself, his team-mates, or his country any favors by not taking part in something so “normal” that it’s nearly expected. Eat. Sleep. Bike. Lift. Supplement.
If the top 58 cyclists were all taking testosterone, cortisone, EPO, etc. then, weren’t they, in a way, leveling their own playing field? I’m not saying that moral relativism is ever a legitimate argument for the normative fallacy, (which is to say that just because it’s happening doesn’t mean you can say because it is happening it ought to happen), but I am saying that I can’t blame Lance Armstrong. It would have been athletic suicide for him to race against the best and deny the scientific advancements he had available.
I feel like I am echoing Lil Wayne, who when asked about legalizing steroids in professional baseball said, in a nut-shell, “I don’t care—let them all hit home-runs.”
By Claudia Mundy