Yes, Lance Armstrong

Like everyone else in the world, I have a few words about Lance Armstrong.

I have no dog in the LIVESTRONG fight, except feelings of camaraderie as a person who was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. I never donated or used their services beyond ordering their free navigation kit long after my treatment ended, mostly for reference in a writing project. But in my own work over the last four years, I have met many people who are invested in their organization. They probably didn’t invent the “thriver” model of cancer survivorship, but they certainly normalized it. My friend and cancer advocate Jody Schoger says that when she was diagnosed in the 1990s, before LIVESTRONG,  “victim” was the ubiquitous model. If you are interested in learning more about their idea of patient empowerment, I encourage you to read the LIVESTRONG Manifesto.

I’m not here to defend that model, or Lance Armstrong. But I am here to say that LiveSTRONG has helped thousands or millions internationally. I don’t know if they’ll survive this and that makes me sad. Regardless, no one can change the good work this foundation has done.

Now consider this.

When I say Komen, what’s your first thought?

A pink ribbon. A foundation. Nancy Brinker. Last year’s public relations nightmare.

You know what doesn’t come to mind? That person – Susan G. Komen. Brinker’s sister who died of breast cancer. Other than Brinker’s assertion that Susan liked the color pink, I know nothing about her. I can quote the organization’s financials, but if Ms. Komen walked into my kitchen right now, I wouldn’t know her.

And that’s a problem.

Jody sent me this article and the epiphany arrived.

Lance Armstrong was not a man, he was an idea; an American myth like Honest Abe and Johnny Appleseed. He was the little engine, brutalized by illness and then savaged by opponents, who could anyway, somebody who shrugged off hate and always took the high road.

I love a good myth.

And that’s a problem.

We’ve been grappling with hero-worship since the beginning of time. Shakespeare became immortal dramatizing the tragic hero – be it ambition, jealousy, loyalty – eventually the hero is undone by something inside. Modern literature too: Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is destroyed by trying to be a part of a world he only imagines exists. Collectively too, we buy into delusion. 

The only difference that I can see is that now we call it Branding.

We wanted to believe in the Brand of Lance. This, despite knowing that all humans are human; a mixture of good and bad. We want there to be good guys and bad guys because it makes our lives simple and reduces the need for thinking. In the closing pages of The Great Gatsby, the narrator reflects on Gatsby and his friends.

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Retreating into our vast carelessness. We coronate heroes and they accept the crown. But what a tiny little box we put them in. There is no way to reconnect to the flawed narrative of reality and, really, nowhere to go but down. And how do we react with the inevitable happens? We feel angry and betrayed. We smash and destroy it all because if it’s not all good, it must be all bad, right?

Of course this happens to the detriment of people who have done good work. People who have been helped by LIVESTRONG. People who might have been helped by them in the future.

Maybe in the end, our inability or unwillingness to embrace the humanity of everyone, the totality of what that means, is our own tragic flaw.

Of course, F Scott speaks to it much more eloquently than me in the closing of The Great Gatsby.

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

4 thoughts on “Yes, Lance Armstrong”

  1. You’re so right, Katie — LIVESTRONG has done tremendous good for countless people, and if the organization suffers bc of Lance’s bad decisions, we all lose a great resource. Love the correlation between the brand of Lance and Gatsby. Nicely done.

  2. because it makes our life simple and reduces the need for thinking.

    We smash and destroy it all because if it’s not all good, it must be all bad, right?

    These two readbacks in a very powerful reflection struck me in particular, Katie.

    Not sure what it says about people like me, but I have never, even as a child, been attracted to celebrity folk or their brands, or the myths the collective creates around them. On the other hand, like the narrator in Gatsby, I feel compassion for them when they “fall” and are savaged by the collective……… which is in no way approving of their behavior….

  3. Thank you for your post. Yesterday I reacted strongly to the outpour of Armstrong supporters who call him a hero. It is difficult for me to call someone a hero when they have misrepresented themselves time and time again as well as hurt others blatantly. As I look back on my reaction I see that I was reacting to what I saw as the brushing off of his lack of integrity. Perhaps I was responding to the “all or nothing” view. I do believe there are many shades of gray and we are indeed human, however, to rationalize without owning all parts, the good the bad and ugly, is dangerous. To me it’s not about judging, it’s about being real.
    My main concern is what our society identifies as heroes.

  4. Great post, Katie. It’s not been altogether a stellar week for sports figures. But, as you suggest, perhpas we need to take a good, hard look at our cult of celebrity and the damage it does to anyone we hold up as somehow super-human. There are no super-heroes, only ordinary people, whose flaws cannot be understood without understanding the social context from which they manifest.

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