Weekend Reads: Lance Armstrong Edition

Viewed from the outside, many proponents of the War on Drugs seem intransigent in their views simply because they find it difficult to allow any new argumentation or evidence to affect what they’ve deemed a moral issue. Much as temperance was in the 1920s, those who support the American government’s battle to retain strict drug laws with severe punishments are undoubtedly engaged in a symbolic crusade (to borrow a term from Joseph Gusfield). Essentially, their support exists in the name of continuing counterproductive and often irrational public policies because, to many, such laws and strictures symbolize something more, something deeper. Many Americans don’t see the loosening of drug laws as a utilitarian means of harm reduction, but as a retreat from the “traditional” values from a morally cohesive age that never really existed.

To be fair, moral crusades regarding drug use are far too complex to be simply be reduced to the simplistic regressive, anti-modernist picture I just provided without heavy qualification. While it is true that the struggle over the meaning of drug laws remains largely politically partisan in American society, one need only look to the news to see how the issue of drugs, government oversight, and moralism can be reframed in a much more complex way. With the recent investigations of Lance Armstrong’s doping and illegal prescription drug muling coming to a close this week, one finds no clear political delineation among the cyclist’s supporters and opponents. Positions on drugs within the Livestrong Industrial Complex vary, as liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and independents struggle to disentangle the implications of L’affair Armstrong.

For those not yet aware, the Plano, Texas-born Armstrong is perhaps the most celebrated road cyclist in history, having famously won the Tour De France seven times, six times after having contracted cancer in his testicles, lungs, abdomen, and brain. Armstrong parlayed his seemingly superhuman ability to perform astounding athletic feats whilst struggling with a life-threatening illness into the multi-billion dollar Livestrong charity, which works as an awareness-raising (though not really a money-raising) foundation on behalf of cancer research. As one might expect, Lance’s combination of non-partisan do-goodery and athletic acumen – not to mention his celebrity romancing – made him an enormously popular and powerful fellow in the worlds of cycling and politics.

Because it seems counterintuitive that someone should not only recover from cancer to win a prestigious endurance race, but should do so without the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) within a sport rife with said drug use, Armstrong has also spent much of his adult life under suspicion. He is undoubtedly the most famous and divisive longtime target of both national and international anti-doping agencies. Despite numerous allegations and investigations, however, Armstrong has never (publicly) tested positive for PEDs and has vigorously defended, in both the courts and the press, his personal reputation as a “clean” racer. Nonetheless, fans and journalists have continued to widely (and openly) suspect Armstrong’s use of non-detectable PEDs, including “The Clear.” 

The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has spent almost the entirety of the twenty-first century thus far building a case against Armstrong to prove he is, in fact, a doper. Over the past fortnight, the Armstrong investigation played out in its entirety, as USADA revealed the findings of their study. They found that Armstrong was at the center of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program [cycling] has ever seen.”  The report included testimony from twenty-six witnesses, including eleven of Armstrong’s former teammates on the U.S. Postal Service-sponsored Tour de France teams. Racers like Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, esteemed athletes in their own right, have acknowledged that Lance not only encouraged the use of PEDs, but he was central to administering them to his team. Perhaps just as damning is the contention in the report that Armstrong had also entered into a “financial agreement” to bury a positive PED test from a Swiss lab. Ultimately, the report concludes, Armstrong “engaged in serial cheating through the use, administration and trafficking of performance enhancing drugs and methods and that Armstrong participated in running the US Postal Service Team as a doping conspiracy.” USADA’s findings have all but ended the “did he or didn’t he” debate, as Armstrong has officially decided not to pursue the issue any further, even though Lance continues to maintain his innocence.

Armstrong’s lawyer Tim Herman has firmly denied USADA’s findings, mercilessly maligning any and all parties who might question the efficacy of Lance’s claims. He described the report as a “one-sided hatchet job” and a “government-funded witch hunt,” arguing that the government agency coerced Landis and Hamilton – who he calls “serial purjurers” – into testifying.

Herman’s objections aside, though, Armstrong has lost the war, having been stripped of his Tour de France titles, an act that delighted many of Lance’s critics. But why would Armstrong even have critics? Why should anyone be pleased to see the fall from grace of a great athlete and humanitarian? What would lead Lance’s former teammates to turn on him, an act one writer described as the “disgruntled fragging by ex-‘lieutenants’”? For the same reasons the War on Drugs has transitioned from a discussion on policy to one about morality: the prevalence of indignance, self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and moralism.

Tyler Hamilton: Armstrong Enemy #1

In protesting his innocence, Armstrong made many enemies. It’s as if he modeled his behaviour on the uncompromisingly caustic Octavian when he would have been much better served playing a loveable, bumbling Claudius. When former trainer Emma O’Reilly sat down with the Sunday Times of London, for instance, to explain that she had served as a PED runner/drug mule for Lance’s team, Armstrong exercised his nuclear option. He took O’Reilly to court and, in the woman’s words, “[sued] me for more than I was worth…I was worried he would bankrupt me.” While he settled for an apology from the Sunday Times, the fact that Armstrong would so vigorously attack O’Reilly was indicative of the general chilling effect the Armstrong camp strove for. To the same ends, Armstrong accosted Hamilton outside of a restaurant bathroom in Aspen, Colorado after his former teammate had discussed Lance’s doping on “60 Minutes.” Whether acting through his lawyers or in person, Armstrong has eagerly embraced intimidation as a key tool in maintaining his reputation.

The Armstrong camp has cannily paired intimidation with shaming, as Livestrong has remained one of the main weapons in Lance’s arsenal. He and his handlers have leveraged the organization, Blue Eagle-style, into something approaching a self-promoting propagada machine. Armstrong has created an enormous personal fan base over the last decade, doing so through distributing 84 million yellow wristbands – the trademark tchotchke of Armstrong fans world-over – and heavy-handed Nike ads that unsubtly imply that any critique of the cyclist is paramount to a critique of cancer survivors. While such gestures are baldly emotionally manipulative on their surface, they have served Armstrong well, shielding him from critique both during and after the investigations. Many fans remain devoted to Armstrong, with one Facebook commenter even going so far as to write “Whether you did, or you didn’t, you still won 7 tour titles, you never failed a test and what you have done to increase the awareness of cancer, is enormous.” For his part, the half-crazed sports journalist Buzz Bissinger proclaimed “Lance Armstrong got fucked. He is a hero. He won those fucking races. All you righteous fuckwads go fuck yourselves.” Such impassioned defenses, indebted in equal parts to the power of positive thinking, Lance’s cult of personality, and his propaganda machine are a fitting equivalent to the type of War on Drugs rhetoric that would see Mitt Romney tell ailing cancer patients that he does not support marijuana use under any circumstances because…well, just because. Sense and morality are often strange bedfellows.

One sees in Lance’s story many of the same questions applied to the larger War on Drugs. Are all drug users “deviant”? Where does drug use fall on the moral spectrum? Is it okay if, maybe, just this one drug is legalized? The funny thing is, though, that the partisans change when the “victim” is a wealthy, white Protestant male celebrity athlete. Lance isn’t treated like other drug users because, for some, when you use drugs to become wildly successful, all is forgiven. Using PEDs is fine as long as you win enough races to become a millionaire and, subsequently, an anti-cancer advocate. Ironically, the other side is just as irrational, savouring Armstrong’s downfall because they find the cyclist personally odious and overly-powerful, a strange view for anyone who might favour the mitigating of drug laws to take. Lance Armstrong has turned drug discussions upside down and, for that, I thank him.