Between parts I and II of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong, an ad ran on OWN that included a clip of Armstrong acknowledging losing 75 million dollars in one day due to sponsors abandoning him followed by Armstrong noting his lowest moment. The sequence suggests that Armstrong was saying his loss of millions was his lowest moment, but when the full part II ran, Armstrong, in fact, identified removing himself from LIVESTRONG as the low moment.
But the point of an ad is to tease, not reflect truth.
For many cycling enthusiasts like me, the dark underbelly of professional cycling and Armstrong have been no revelation. For the many innocent people trampled by the Armstrong stampede—such as cycling journalist Neil Browne and the well publicized Frankie and Betsy Andreu—the Armstrong confession has opened the door for some vindication of their honesty, but unlikely is that the tremendous damage done to their livelihoods can ever be repaid.
Within hours of the Armstrong interview being aired, details of a book on Armstrong’s disgraceful fall were announced for a June 2013 publication, to be followed by a film.
And herein lies one thing that is receiving almost no public discussion: As long as the media, the USADA, and the public keep the gaze on Armstrong alone, the culture within which Armstrong flourished, the culture within which Armstrong was created will remain unexamined, unscathed, and free to consume.
Today among the rubble of Armstrong’s machine, Capitalism remains unchecked, and many now line up once again to profit off Armstrong as they did during his rise to false King of Cycling.
Capitalism’s Poster Boys
As Armstrong sat uncomfortably answering Oprah’s question, his manner and voice stoic and measured, I could think of only one thing: Tiger Woods after his fall from grace.
Armstrong and Woods reached the pinnacle of their sports with a tremendous amount of who they are as men below the surface like an iceberg. Both Armstrong and Woods remained incredibly cold and detached throughout their interviews when they were asked to confront their flaws.
Many note that these two men represent a key feature of winners—the ability to focus and detach. In cycling, mythic figures Eddy Merckx was known as The Cannibal, and Bernard Hinault, as The Badger.
But beyond who they are as humans, Armstrong and Woods share something else we are not confronting: They have been and remain poster boys for Capitalism.
For example, how much has Nike profited off both men during the pinnacle of their deceptive careers?
And while Armstrong is currently in free fall from grace, notice this ad lately from Woods?
In the consumer culture of Capitalism almost anything can be ignored and anything forgiven as long as somebody in power is making money.
How long before we see the resurrection of Armstrong as a revenue stream?
Not long, I suspect.
How long before Nike, Giro, Trek, Oakley, and other corporations who fed off the Armstrong Myth-as-Lie are called to atone for their profits just as many are calling for Armstrong to pay?
Don’t hold your breath.
The rugged individualism myth helped create Armstrong, but it also keeps the gaze of moral outrage safely on the individual—just as those in power profitting off the myth demand.
Capitalism, then, fails us. Professional sports are just a microcosm of that failure inherent in a system that allows cost-benefits and profit to trump ethics.
In a rarely acknowledged sermon (February 4, 1968), Martin Luther King Jr. confronted James and John asking to sit to Jesus’s left and right on his throne:
“But before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first. Of course, the other disciples got mad with James and John, and you could understand why, but we must understand that we have some of the same James and John qualities. And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.
“And so before we condemn them, let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life, this drum major instinct.”
This drum major instinct accurately captures the motivation at the core of Armstrong and Woods leading to their success as athletes, but left unchecked by a moral imperative, the drum major instinct deforms:
“There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. (Make it plain) And that’s where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted. I guess that’s the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn’t harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that—you know, and I’m sure you’ve met them—that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. (Amen) And they just boast and boast and boast, and that’s the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct.
“And then it does other things to the personality. It causes you to lie about who you know sometimes. (Amen, Make it plain) There are some people who are influence peddlers. And in their attempt to deal with the drum major instinct, they have to try to identify with the so-called big-name people. (Yeah, Make it plain) And if you’re not careful, they will make you think they know somebody that they don’t really know. (Amen) They know them well, they sip tea with them, and they this-and-that. That happens to people.”
Freed of the corrosive power of material consumption and the lust to win, that same drum major instinct can become a source of good, as King envisioned about his own role:
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.”
In these days surrounding celebrations of the life and work of King, it is time to turn our gaze away from the poster boys of Capitalism and to the culture of consumerism and competition that spawned their distorted success and warped humanity.
And ultimately, some of that gaze must be reserved for the mirror as well.