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Weekend Reads: Lance Armstrong Edition

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

To be fair, moral crusades regarding drug use are far too complex to be simply be reduced to the simplistic regressive, anti-modernist picture I just provided without heavy qualification. While it is true that the struggle over the meaning of drug laws remains largely politically partisan in American society, one need only look to the news to see how the issue of drugs, government oversight, and moralism can be reframed in a much more complex way. With the recent investigations of Lance Armstrong’s doping and illegal prescription drug muling coming to a close this week, one finds no clear political delineation among the cyclist’s supporters and opponents. Positions on drugs within the Livestrong Industrial Complex vary, as liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and independents struggle to disentangle the implications of L’affair Armstrong.

Because it seems counterintuitive that someone should not only recover from cancer to win a prestigious endurance race, but should do so without the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) within a sport rife with said drug use, Armstrong has also spent much of his adult life under suspicion. He is undoubtedly the most famous and divisive longtime target of both national and international anti-doping agencies. Despite numerous allegations and investigations, however, Armstrong has never (publicly) tested positive for PEDs and has vigorously defended, in both the courts and the press, his personal reputation as a “clean” racer. Nonetheless, fans and journalists have continued to widely (and openly) suspect Armstrong’s use of non-detectable PEDs, including “The Clear.” 

Armstrong’s lawyer Tim Herman has firmly denied USADA’s findings, mercilessly maligning any and all parties who might question the efficacy of Lance’s claims. He described the report as a “one-sided hatchet job” and a “government-funded witch hunt,” arguing that the government agency coerced Landis and Hamilton – who he calls “serial purjurers” – into testifying.

Herman’s objections aside, though, Armstrong has lost the war, having been stripped of his Tour de France titles, an act that delighted many of Lance’s critics. But why would Armstrong even have critics? Why should anyone be pleased to see the fall from grace of a great athlete and humanitarian? What would lead Lance’s former teammates to turn on him, an act one writer described as the “disgruntled fragging by ex-‘lieutenants’”? For the same reasons the War on Drugs has transitioned from a discussion on policy to one about morality: the prevalence of indignance, self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and moralism.

Tyler Hamilton: Armstrong Enemy #1

In protesting his innocence, Armstrong made many enemies. It’s as if he modeled his behaviour on the uncompromisingly caustic Octavian when he would have been much better served playing a loveable, bumbling Claudius. When former trainer Emma O’Reilly sat down with the Sunday Times of London, for instance, to explain that she had served as a PED runner/drug mule for Lance’s team, Armstrong exercised his nuclear option. He took O’Reilly to court and, in the woman’s words, “[sued] me for more than I was worth…I was worried he would bankrupt me.” While he settled for an apology from the Sunday Times, the fact that Armstrong would so vigorously attack O’Reilly was indicative of the general chilling effect the Armstrong camp strove for. To the same ends, Armstrong accosted Hamilton outside of a restaurant bathroom in Aspen, Colorado after his former teammate had discussed Lance’s doping on “60 Minutes.” Whether acting through his lawyers or in person, Armstrong has eagerly embraced intimidation as a key tool in maintaining his reputation.

The Armstrong camp has cannily paired intimidation with shaming, as Livestrong has remained one of the main weapons in Lance’s arsenal. He and his handlers have leveraged the organization, Blue Eagle-style, into something approaching a self-promoting propagada machine. Armstrong has created an enormous personal fan base over the last decade, doing so through distributing 84 million yellow wristbands – the trademark tchotchke of Armstrong fans world-over – and heavy-handed Nike ads that unsubtly imply that any critique of the cyclist is paramount to a critique of cancer survivors. While such gestures are baldly emotionally manipulative on their surface, they have served Armstrong well, shielding him from critique both during and after the investigations. Many fans remain devoted to Armstrong, with one Facebook commenter even going so far as to write “Whether you did, or you didn’t, you still won 7 tour titles, you never failed a test and what you have done to increase the awareness of cancer, is enormous.” For his part, the half-crazed sports journalist Buzz Bissinger proclaimed “Lance Armstrong got fucked. He is a hero. He won those fucking races. All you righteous fuckwads go fuck yourselves.” Such impassioned defenses, indebted in equal parts to the power of positive thinking, Lance’s cult of personality, and his propaganda machine are a fitting equivalent to the type of War on Drugs rhetoric that would see Mitt Romney tell ailing cancer patients that he does not support marijuana use under any circumstances because…well, just because. Sense and morality are often strange bedfellows.


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