Lance Armstrong and the noble lie

Bryn Lennon - Getty Images

Lance Armstrong lied to do good things. That's still a lie.

Lance Armstrong is not the fight against cancer. He would like you to think he is, since the entire thrust of his career post-cancer was to race not just for himself, but for a cause, the long fight against cancer. He said as much in the only deposition Armstrong ever sat for in the series of legal battles waged by Armstrong against critics, anti-doping agencies, and in this case, an insurer who refused to pay a performance bonus because of Armstrong's doping.

Starting at about the 44:00 mark here, Armstrong says this.

If you have a doping offense or you test positive, it goes without saying that you're fired. Not just from the team, but from all of your contracts, numerous contracts that I have. That would all go away. And the faith of all the cancer survivors of the world. Everything that I do off the bike goes away, too. And don't think for a second that I don't understand that.

Attacking Armstrong was, for a long time, conflated with the cancer survivors and those undergoing treatment he sought to support and inspire through his charity, Livestrong. The yellow bracelets, the fundraising, the endless promotional appearances Armstrong slogged through don't disappear along with the seven vacated Tour de France championships and Nike contracts. They remain real, even if the inspiration behind them was more applied science than testament to the human will.

I don't really care about doping in cycling here for a lot of reasons. Cycling at its highest levels has always been riddled with astonishing abuse of performance-enhancing drugs, and with good reason. The Tour de France destroys riders, shortens the lifespans of its competitors, and remains one of the most deranged sporting events in existence. To be a professional cyclist is to willingly chain yourself to a rack you then pull over mountains. To worry about the effects or advantages of performance-enhancing drugs in such dire physical circumstances here seems academic in the worst sense of the word, is well above my pay grade empirically, and is tangential to the point here.


SB Nation's Amy K. Nelson discusses Armstrong on FOX Business.

I do care about the notion that a lie can be validated by outcomes, however. The effects of Armstrong's masturbatory cult-building have been positive, but positive outcomes as the result of something negative aren't justification for post-facto rearrangement of the moral furniture. He lied, and did so aggressively and often maliciously against those who dared to point it out publicly. His lies profited him immensely over the years, something that in legal terms is usually filed under the overused but appropriate term "fraud."

Yes, cancer survivors got real inspiration from Armstrong. They took and continue to take hope from Livestrong, and the knowledge that abstractly, somewhere on a bike, Lance Armstrong was stuffing EPO in his veins with reporters just on the other side of a bus door in the name of the cause. They might have felt some relief in knowing that while they were undergoing the hell of chemotherapy, there was someone slamming human growth hormone and steroids into their system riding for them, and occasionally trying to ruin the careers of riders who dared ask the obvious questions about doping and the miracles Armstrong created year in and year out in the world's toughest cycling race.

According to Armstrong, if this lie were exposed that hope would be lost. Consider that, the first lie in a long chain of lies: that Armstrong's pursuit of the victory of a bike race was tantamount to hope itself. Contrast it with Armstrong's own recovery story. During his chemotherapy and cancer treatment, Armstrong spurned the notion of a religious component to his recovery. When asked about religion, he would insist that he had good doctors, and that they were enough.

That equation changed along the way for Armstrong. It changed as a matter of professional necessity, as he became the magical element in the equation, a figure whose creation myth became less a matter of reality and more one of faith. In his hour of need, he claimed he needed only himself and medical science. Others clearly needed something more. They demanded a religion, and with it the organizing principle of a saint.

Armstrong put himself in that role, and had Nike and the rest sell the iconography for him. He spoke frequently of miracles in his speeches because miracles sell in all the best and worst ways. They help sell the fundraising efforts that support cancer victims. They help sell bikes, and advertising space, and everything else Armstrong endorsed on the way to being a professional cyclist worth over $100 million personally.

They sell an old lie: the bad thing done and validated by good intentions. It would be more pardonable if Armstrong had lived a monastic existence, donating his winnings to cancer research instead of lolling in the world of celebrity as he did. But it would still require pardon, and the reiteration that the "noble lie" is the first tool of a condescending tyrant-on-the-make. This would be someone like Lance Armstrong, who invented a religion when modern chemistry was enough for him on so many occasions.

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