• Behind the curtain
    January 19,2013

    The story of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace is not all that interesting: another pretender, another cheat, another liar, another bully. The world is full of them. In one sense, it feels better to forget about them, let them fade into oblivion.

    In another sense, it’s good to confront our own vulnerability to the myth-making prowess of accomplished crooks and to recognize the difficulty we have freeing ourselves of their myths. It happens not just in sports, but in many walks of life.

    Armstrong was a great sports hero because he battled back from cancer and won the Tour de France for seven straight races. He consistently denied that he used performance-enhancing drugs, even as other cyclists were caught. Anyone who challenged his veracity was subject to vicious attacks.

    Meanwhile, he was making millions in prize money and endorsements and was promoting an image of himself as a wholesome all-American hero working through his foundation to help victims of cancer.

    It was all a fraud. He was not a hero. He was a self-serving liar, who made a fortune by promoting an image. The image was a fake, and everyone who was inspired by his athletic achievements or his good deeds was duped.

    We know all this because of Armstrong’s admissions in his celebrated interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he acknowledged the drugs and the lies. He tried to defend himself by saying that what he did was part of the prevailing culture of cycling. Everyone was doing it. Of course, drugs would not have been the prevailing culture except for the lies that everyone was telling. And Armstrong, as the greatest cyclist of all, was a big part of the culture. What he took to be expiation was actually a self-indictment.

    He is not the only myth-making fraud in sports or American life. The list of disgraced athletes is long, including that roster of stars who were not inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa. There have been others, including Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire.

    Reaction to the Armstrong confession has included a tendency to let bygones be bygones: He has made his confession; let him move on. The underlying assumption is that he is a good person who got caught up in something. This tolerance for fraud is founded on the premise that his sports accomplishments grant him a stature that demands our admiration.

    How liberating it is to free ourselves from thralldom to that myth. What is there to admire in someone so self-obsessed and hungry for money and fame that he fashions a life of lies? And sports is not the only arena where lies and self-obsession have enthralled people to a myth.

    Think of the myth of the Wall Street titan and the obeisance he has required from the American people, who have been taught to believe that the riches of the plutocrat endow him with great qualities. This myth has cost the nation far more dearly than the myth of heroism surrounding our sports frauds. We have learned that the limousine class has perpetrated a Ponzi scheme vastly more damaging than the crimes of Bernie Madoff. And when the edifice fell down around them, we had to cough up our own money to put it back together again.

    “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” said the Wizard of Oz. The myth advanced by the wizard was all part of Dorothy’s dream, but it was part of a story told during the Great Depression when the American people needed to disenthrall themselves from the wizards of Wall Street and other charlatans who had wrecked the nation.

    Lance Armstrong is just another charlatan, one with unusual powers of physical endurance. So what? The grand showmanship of his confession is just part of his game.

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