Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Lance Armstrong's Disgrace Has Exposed the Dangerous Cult of Positive Thinking

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Lance Armstrong's Disgrace Has Exposed the Dangerous Cult of Positive Thinking

Article excerpt

He might be disgraced as a sportsman but his advocacy of relentless willpower has brought hope to millions of cancer sufferers. That is the conventional view of Lance Armstrong. Sadly, the doping case against Armstrong is the least of it. Applied to sport, Armstrong's deification of the power of positive thinking is mere fantasy. When it is applied to the question of life and death it moves into far more dangerous territory.

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Armstrong built a brand in answer to the question, "What made the difference, Lance?" He nourished a narrative that apparently began as a lie and hardened into full-scale fantasy. Not talent (though he possessed plenty of that). Not drugs (though his team-mates now say he was a "pioneer of doping"). No, the difference in Armstrong's view was his mental ability to eliminate human frailty. Armstrong recovered from testicular cancer; he then won seven yellow jerseys in the Tour de France. Those two processes became blurred in his mind--so much so that when people accused him of doping in cycling he would imply they were belittling those who had recovered from cancer.

Fanatical hatred

Does Armstrong still believe he is a genuine champion, unfairly wronged? Many people accused of doping allow themselves some wriggle room, even before they are caught. Armstrong responded to his accusers with fanatical hatred. They were cynics trying to cheat the world of genuine miracles that he, Armstrong, had made real.

Is lying the appropriate word for such a fantasist? Or do fantasists lose possession of those facts that don't fit the version of events on which their self-image relies? Armstrong's racing was informed by a simple mantra: I believe, therefore I will win. Armstrong's doping denials were similarly straightforward: I believe, therefore it is true. Both sport and life had been reduced to a narrative in which willpower could defy any odds.

Armstrong told us to "believe in miracles". But if you follow his own logic, believing in miracles doesn't quite capture it. After all, he believed he had the power to make miracles, not just to benefit from them. He was the agent, not just the recipient. There is a term for those who can will miraculous events: gods. That is how Armstrong viewed himself. The rules that govern normal human beings no longer applied to him.

There are echoes of Tiger Woods, who has long regarded his own humanity as something that needs to be overcome rather than embraced. Feelings, emotions, vulnerabilities: they are problems that need to be ironed out, like flaws in a faulty backswing.

But compare Armstrong's alleged deceit with the relatively trifling deception of Woods. Woods pretended to be a family man to make a few extra million dollars in easy sponsorship deals. He was exposed but his achievements on the golf course remain valid. With Armstrong, the deceit seems far deeper and sadder.

Armstrong found many willing allies in the promotion of his myth. The public lapped up the Lance legend with hysterical enthusiasm. He was the perfect hero for our times: an icon of willpower. In sport--and in life--self-belief is now routinely invoked as the explanation for almost everything. …

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