When Anything Means Anything
When I was in the depths of my Crazy, I bought a yellow Livestrong band from the sporting goods store. I admit it. I needed new running shoes to reverse the damage my old trail-beaters were causing my left IT band, and on a whim at the checkout counter I, like millions of others, bought two of the yellow bracelets for $1 a piece.
That I might be tangentially assisting in cancer research or cancer awareness or some-cancer-thing was not my motivation. I needed inspiration to run my way out of being Crazy and I was desperate enough to try a molded plastic wrist band whose sticky texture pulled relentlessly on my arm hair and was never very comfortable. I stared at the wrist band and felt inspired and never took it off, when running or in the shower or sleeping. I eventually lost it whitewater rafting on Cattaraugus Creek, a sign from a higher power I told myself, that I was no longer in need of it, that I was far enough along on a path of recovery that I could muscle the rest of the way out on my own.
Judging by the media hand-wringing and moralizing surrounding Lance Armstrong’s sincere-but-only-kinda apology to Oprah last week, I should register as a member of an emotional class-action lawsuit filed against his record and public persona. The logic goes this way: millions around the world were inspired by Lance Armstrong’s towering will to fight. He inspired them to run a marathon/eat healthier/fight cancer/take up cycling/save a marriage. But now that we know that his do-anything-to-win attitude involved doing anything to win, we should feel cheated. The motivation he provided is now false and tainted as it was built on a lie.
The merits of whether Armstrong was “cheating” at all is debatable. If cheating is gaining an unfair advantage over an opponent, then Armstrong was not cheating at all. This is the case he made to Oprah, the defense of your high schooler asking to wear make-up or go drinking at a friend’s house. If everyone is doing it, is it wrong? Blood-doping and taking testosterone may be unhealthy in the long-term, but making a moral judgment (as any such label of “cheater” is) is challenging when an athlete simply adheres to the practical norms of his or her sport.
If your definition of cheating, however, centers on following the established rules of a governing body, then certainly Armstrong has broken trust. But this definition implies (again) a moral foundation to said rules, a principled underpinning to what is really an ever-changing and arbitrary collection of compromises and agreements. Why is EPO categorized as “performance enhancing” but not vitamins, Gatorade, protein energy bars, caffeine or gel packs? Why is naturally occurring testosterone banned but fabricated supplements allowed? How do banned substances undermine the sport more than the latest aerodynamic bike or training technique? Is not the only difference between the newest, sleekest, most aerodynamic helmet and human growth hormone that an international body decided one was okay for everybody and another was not? On the merits, why the distinction? The only apparent answer is “rules are rules,” and I maintain a 21st century skepticism for deference to institutions.
But even if we establish that Armstrong was a cheater, no matter the shakiness of the claim, the emotional class-action lawsuit logic remains flawed. It conveniently assigns blame to Armstrong for insecurities general to our culture, tendencies we would rather not face directly. The insecurity is this: that life is not fair, and some advantages over others.
No matter the Founding Father claim that all men are created equal, in practical experience we know this not to be true. Each man and woman is not a blank slate, an identical clay model molded into cycling form and then placed on the starting line through the merits of hard work alone. Armstrong famously has an oversized heart and lung capacity, genetic advantages. Other riders have naturally higher levels of testosterone, red blood cell counts or long lean muscles. There is no equity system to ensure everyone has equal funding for better coaching and equipment. The idea that the playing field is level before the addition of EPO and HGH is completely false, but a fallacy we tell ourselves to maintain the myth of fair competition and worship of success. “May the better man win.” By what standard? Blood doping may provide a greater benefit to one athlete over another because of their physiology. But such genetic dispositions effect training and nutrition regimes too; we find a distinction in fairness where none exists.
Causing the greatest discomfort, however, is our culture’s duplicity involving the will to win and succeed, and here Armstrong lays our hypocritical tendencies bare. Ignoring the cheating, ignoring the unfair advantage, the real crime here, the moralizers say, is the lie. The cover-up is always worse than the crime. We want to revere mighty figures who enter the public arena and bite, scratch, claw, struggle, and endure to succeed, who overcome any odds, who do whatever it takes to win, except . . . lie? It is an odd standard at which to draw a line. We forgive so many other faults in our public heroes: marital infidelity, dog fighting, assault. More insidiously, we forgive non-criminal defects subconsciously. Disloyalty, unkindness, greed all glossed over. If an athlete all but ignores their family they are dedicated to their sport. If they box their way to dementia they are willing to make sacrifices for greatness. If they inject their own blood back into their bodies before a big race and lie about it, they are no longer inspiring?
Our culture reveres the success, celebrates the accomplishment, and is angry to be reminded our heroes have faults. That we stigmatize cheating and lying above and beyond other failings is disingenuous at best. In truth, we simply don’t want them to get caught so the illusion may be maintained. We can’t admire Armstrong’s drive to win and then tsk tsk when he infringes on such qualifications we sporadically apply to ourselves. I never cheated in EOD school, but it was the first place I heard the refrain “if you ain’t cheatin you ain’t tryin.” Doing anything to win means just that. I would have done anything to break the grip the Crazy had on me. My yellow band reminded me of that.