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Icon of the month: Lance Armstrong

Benjamin Hannavy-Cousens

Beneath the surface over-saturation of sporting images characterising the summer of 2012, the narrative thread of Lance Armstrong's miraculous story was unravelling. In failing to challenge the findings of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) against him, Armstrong has submitted to being stripped of all his victories since 1998 if not of his endorsement deals (Nike, Michelob) and the support of the wilfully deluded.

Though there has never been a truly non-suspicious moment in the career of the diminutive bully-king of cycling since 1998 (the year when the 'Festina' scandal nearly destroyed the Tour de France and meant that few feats in professional cycling could be viewed with a qualm free mind for at least a decade), one wonders if the story would have been better for him and us if he had limited himself to winning the 1999 race, his 'miraculous' comeback-from-cancer-tour.

By 2005 his dominance had grown to the extent of either removing the story's lustre or propelling it to a kind of ecstatic perfection, depending on your point of view. Armstrong strong-armed the opposition in his winning years, bullying anyone who disagreed with him in a graceless and apparently shameless fashion (witness his treatment of Filippo Simeoni). But it was sort of okay, because he had also destroyed cancer (best not to entertain the darker murmurings that wondered if the ingestion of banned substances may have caused the cancer in the first place).

With Armstrong, a greater unanswerable cause (cancer awareness) is wheeled in to belittle smaller concerns (integrity of being) and confound them with its logic. ('It's the economy, stupid' is a phrase operating in the same totalising way.) Winning alone counts in this avowedly soulless complicitly capitalist worldview. The nuances of spirit or the possibility that one's endeavours, however great, may be accountable beyond the image they create and the spin-offs they generate, are occluded.

Hollywood never did make the mooted Armstrong film. Maybe they knew something. If they do get round to it, one feels there will be a revised plot angle making more of the back story that explains the road to deception. In the words of the notoriously 'clean' cyclist Christophe Bassons: 'He lives only to put himself above mortals. I am more sorry for him than anything else. This need to feel superior, to crush the competition, certainly has its source in his past.'

It is difficult sometimes to think of the Lance Armstrong story without Mark 8:36 coming to mind: 'for what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' This is not to act as a judge over this particular soul (leave that, in the first instance, to the USADA, WADA and hopefully the UCI); he was simply a cheating cyclist who beat other cheating cyclists. To some extent it was a level playing field. Except that it is impossible to know whether he was a better cheat or a better cyclist, or both and in this instance it should actually have just been about the bike.

Armstrong was a fitting icon because he was always a surface image, a representation, an advert; the 'marketing character' par excellence.  Being superman looked so good. And this is a real problem when an image becomes a substitute for substance (trumping substance abuse). The appeal to the iconic image should sound alarm bells in those who want to enjoy and find some meaning and hope in sporting achievement. 'In my mind I have won seven grand tours', so speaks Alberto Contador, recent winner of the Tour of Spain who has been stripped of two of his grand tour victories: 'What matters is my own feeling and the impressions that remain in the retina of the spectators'. What actually matters is that these impressions are not blurring our vision so that we are blind to sustained deceit.

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