Saturday, October 13, 2012

on why the Lance Armstrong debacle upsets me so much

The other night I stayed up late reading news reports on the newly released evidence of Lance Armstrong's doping and cheating and bullying. I clicked links to more and more detailed stories, reading testimonies and explanations of how doping works and how Armstrong avoided getting caught and how he dominated his team with threats.

Josh raised his eyebrows. I've never watched a cycling race in my life (is that even what they're called?) ... I don't really care about sports. My primary prior knowledge of Armstrong was as a top-notch athlete who was also a cancer survivor and a major philanthropist. And he was linked to those yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets?

But the stories settled and twisted in the pit of my stomach. "It's just so sad," I kept repeating as I read. Josh shook his head and said something along the lines of, "So are the under-reported stories of children and civilians killed in wars today."

Well, yes.

In fact, the stories of ongoing injustices, violences, degradations are much sadder. And the filters that bring us our "top" news stories are a troubling matter for another conversation. The silences, the gaps, the blanks where there should be reporting and awareness-raising--these are evidence of our broken systems.

But the Lance Armstrong story is sad in a different way, I think, because it is a story of betrayal. We expect injustices and violences and degradations, in our cynical twenty-first century muted awareness of the global scope of war and oppression. Especially since the age of television, of war reporting, of mass media, we're vaguely aware (and perhaps overwhelmed by the degree to which) they exist. This overwhelming awareness may, in fact, be why we turn away from the stories, why we throw up our hands and try to get on with our daily lives rather than giving ourselves wholly over to activism.

In this noisy world so overpopulated with violence and injustice and death, we search for stories of greatness. We search for heroes, yes, but even more I think we search for stories of overcoming. I believe that something in us calls out for narratives of redemption, of beating the odds, of the great and unusual heights of human accomplishment. Lance Armstrong's story of triumphing over cancer (another of our pervasive risks and fears) and then going on to show what near-miraculous feats the human body is capable of is a story that we need. We need to be reminded that these fragile sacks of bones are not just meaninglessly bound for death, but that they can do something profound and astonishing during our time here. We need to be reminded that giving in to illness and other oppressions isn't our only option.

Lance Armstrong provided one of those absolutely necessary stories of hope and even excellence in the face of vulnerability and death. The narrative of his life could be a rallying point.

And this is why his massive tumble from that pedestal is so devastating: we needed his story of life and hope, even in its larger-than-life scope, and the news that it was all based on lies--big, mean, ongoing lies--robs us of that story. It's not just that the character of a benevolent hero has been exposed as less than exemplary. It's also that his accomplishments, which so many thought were an awesome instance of the outer limits of the human body's abilities, weren't naturally achieved at all. We have been lied to, and the lie isn't just about a hero's admirability, it's also about how much we, as a species, are currently able to overcome and achieve.

To put it even more simply, when one of our few big stories of glimmering success against all odds is exposed as fraudulent, our store of hope, already scant in an era of cynicism and fatigue, is further diminished.

I could spend more paragraphs reflecting on the dangers of hero-worship, or questions about the rules against doping (we use technology for everything else, right?), or questions about why this news story was released now, when there is so much else going on in the world. But instead, I'll end by suggesting we seek our stories of hope elsewhere--that we look more to grassroots and local sources for tales of redemption. The stories are out there, but we need to be finding them ourselves, and spreading them, and sharing them. That's why I'm thankful for Rachel Held Evans's recent series compiling tales of "Women of Valor." What other sources do you suggest we turn to for stories that remind us of the good that is possible?

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