DISCLAIMER AND SPOILER: If you are a Lance Armstrong advocate, please relax and read on. This isn't really about Lance, but it is about you, and you, and you, and the good ol' U.S. of A.
In August, The Onion ran a brilliant faux-news story on the increasingly discredited Tour de France champion: "Lance Armstrong Lets Down Single Person Who Still Believed Him."
On October 10, 2012, the USADA released a staggering report on not just Armstrong, but essentially every recognizable American cyclist during Armstrong's reign as the king of the Tour de France. Throughout the decades of charges of doping against Armstrong, the humor in The Onion article has been factually discredited since Armstrong supporters have remained undeterred by evidence of any kind regarding his use of PEDs. With the USADA release, the same pattern has occurred on Facebook and other social media with droves of people supporting George Hincapie and the numerous American cyclists who, unlike Armstrong, have confessed to a career of doping to succeed as professional cyclists.
I have been a serious cyclist for almost 30 years now, and I confess that I have watched virtually every professional cycling event over those decades, amazed at the feats of professional cyclists. Having ridden about 8,000-10,000 miles a year many years over the past three decades and completed several grueling cycling events (centuries in the mountains, day-long rides exceeding 200 miles), I did not need to be an elite athlete to recognize cycling as a disturbingly difficult athletic performance.
In fact, I have often wondered: How in the hell do they do that? [Hint: Seems pretty obvious that the answer is most of the "winners" have had more on their side than unique physical talent and exemplary training.]
While Lance Armstrong's physical and mental talents (with or without doping) are unique, the Armstrong story is, in fact, nothing special. It is, instead, All-American bull$#!@.
All-American Bull$#!@: If It Sounds Too Good to Be True, Well...
Before I move on to Armstrong and the reek of bull$#!@ surrounding everything about him and his cycling career, let me ask you, dear reader, to comtemplate a few names:
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker
(Former) Governor Mark Sanford (SC)
Now, if you'd like, take a few minutes to google and consider what they have in common. And while you're at it, you may want to do the same with any or all of the Founding Fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and the lot.
Back and finished? (Wikipedia is often undervalued, I think.)
Now let's take one more brief diversion, just to put everything in context and assure you that I am not simply piling onto Armstrong (my intent is much more offensive than that, and more far reaching).
While Joel Klein is likely not on the popular radar like Armstrong, Woods, or others noted above, the "story about a story" concerning Klein is a stark message speaking to my point here. According to Rothstein, Klein, as a powerful self-proclaimed education reformer, has persistently used his own autobiography to reinforce his rugged individualism, rags-to-riches philosophy undergirding the "no excuses" education reform movement; but:
"...Klein’s entire autobiography is a sleight of hand.Armstrong, like Klein and many others in the cult of personality that is the U.S. of A., is a "story about a story"—a story that Americans buy and sell.
"Klein was not a child of the streets. He was not an academically unmotivated student. He did not come from a deprived family background. He did not grow up in public housing as we understand it today.
"He was not a child of the streets. He was not an academically unmotivated student. He did not come from a deprived family background. He did not grow up in public housing as we understand it today."
The young Armstrong side-by-side with his faithful mother defeating adult triathletes! Let's not ignore the Texan Armstrong!
The neophyte professional cyclist Armstrong who began to make dents in a European sport! World Champion!
The young promising American athlete diagnosed with cancer!
The young promising American athlete defeating cancer by his shear will to survive and with his beautiful blond wife at his side! And, hot damn, there's a book (or two)!
The young promising American athlete and cancer survivor who beats the Europeans in the Tour de France!
While building a glowing monument to cancer survivors around the planet! Live Strong! Yellow will never be the same...
[Sorry, I have goose bumps and must pause a second.]
Many people are stunned, and some remain blinded by their jaundiced-colored glasses (apologies for the many-layered and complicated pun). But the story about a story regarding Armstrong is that he built a persona America taught him to believe, a persona Americans want to believe, but a persona that does not exist, never has, and never will.
It's bull$#!@. Pure and total All-American bull$#!@.
Having high aspirations, believing in inspiring personal stories, embracing role models, working hard and overcoming adversity—these remain perfectly wonderful things, even valuable things.
But that's not the Armstrong story. It wasn't the Tiger Woods story either. Or a whole list of people who have made themselves along with our help larger than life.
The Ayn Rand rugged individualism trope stinks to high heaven, but Americans traffic in it like its a patch of golden honeysuckle.
It's a lie, and a corrosive one at that. Not like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Or telling small children to be kind to one another.
The rugged individualism myth perpetuates a misguided faith in the privileged and elite (success is as much luck as effort, if not more luck) along with a caustic demonizing of everyone else, especially the people mislabeled losers of one kind or another. Poverty and losing are often as much bad luck as flawed character, if not more often bad luck.
Armstrong is not someone to be worshipped or castigated.
He is a mirror. He is us. He could not have created this without us. (More punning by the way: "us" and "U.S.")
And this isn't as sanctimonious as it may seem: I wanted it all to be true too. I'm not all that surprised we are compelled to reach for faerie tales. But many years ago, I found that the Batman myth was far more satisfying than the Superman myth because the latter gave off the stench of All-American bull$#!@.
Americans clinging to the rugged individualism myth are a people and country unwilling to grow up. The Armstrong story about a story is just the most recent opportunity to set aside "myths that deform" (Freire, 2005, p. 75) and confront the realities before us.
Freire, P.. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. Trans. D. Macedo, D., Koike, & A., Oliveira. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.