Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Lance Dance

Lanced (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

The second part of the Lance and Oprah tango confirms all my suspicions. He's launched his twelve-speed onto the twelve-step superhighway, with Oprah conveniently providing a safe slip road. All that talk about process and apologising - routine stuff for redemptive sinners on training wheels - is meat and potatoes to Oprah and, I'm presuming, her audience.

She might as well have picked him up and carried him into the tent herself. I'm guessing this is what it's all been about. Lance's people talk to Oprah's people and they agree 'a way forward' and 'a set of outcomes' and ... yes, we may all want to fall asleep at the very thought, but this is the robotic way in which our top echelon organises itself these days. It's about breaking and fixing or replacing. And this is a fix (sorry, poor pun).  And perhaps I sound like a conspiracy-theory tragic, but, when everything goes the way of the pear in your life, does Oprah magically show up and ameliorate your cheating, lying misdeed-doing 'inner demons' away and set you back on the redemptive high-earning road to inner peace? I'm thinking not.

Let's not forget that Armstrong is an anagram of strong-arm, an adjective that means violent coercion. The strong-arm guy is the faceless enforcer goon. Once again, that third-person 'guy' shoulders the responsibility for all the bad acts that are, in any case, the fault of society for having such high expectations and life-threatening cancer for even daring to darken the door of someone who had significant bicycling to do and, you know, the pressure of being exceptional,

'That is a guy who felt invincible. He was told he was invincible. He truly believed he was invincible. That's who that guy was.'

It appears 'that guy' who did all the bad things is still around but destined to be 'exiting through this process.'

Step up the miracles of therapy and personal development. Yawn. Could someone please call Hollywood and commission a new script.

Armstrong's first goal is to find a way to compete again. He likens his life-ban from competing in any sport to 'a death sentence'. All through the interview he links the 'challenges' of his 50/50 cancer diagnosis with his current predicament. Although he occasionally admits fault for the latter, it's clear he wants the world to see this as another great challenge to be faced down by a steely and valiant competitor. Many commentators have suggested that the end-game here is to secure a retro-active 8-year ban, starting from 2005. That's entirely dependent on securing acceptance of his much-pressed assertion that he took no performance-enhancing drugs after 2005. He'd then be eligible to compete again after a year of public contrition. Oprah's soft handling of this timeline is, at the very least, suspicious.

It's likely he'll want to worm his way back into his Livestrong Foundation. If he can generate millions for charity in the short-term, no one will mind him banking a few of his own after a while, I'm guessing.

Oprah, of course, has an agenda too. You don't get to be a billionaire without one. Armstrong has been quite a catch and my guess is he'll stay caught. I'm seeing a whole reality industry forming around him and his 'process'. It's difficult to imagine anything more ghastly (except perhaps more Kardashians), but that's the world we live in.

Armstrong has one important thing going for him. Americans, and by extension the rest of the Anglophone world, will want him to hit the floor and bounce up again. Who would want to be talking about this in five year's or even five month's time? We'll be wanting to pick up the trail of a fresh transgressor. I imagine veteran Sunday Times sports journalist David Walsh (diminutized as 'Davy' by the man who insisted he didn't call Betsy 'fat'), who doggedly trailed this story for more than a decade, would like a more colourful subject to pursue. There are plenty of Kardashians on offer, although considering them 'sport' might be a bit cruel.

Nobody likes a loser, especially one that's been a big plank in the national self-esteem structure for more than a decade. It's okay to lose - we all need to learn how to do that. And as for being flawed (even to the point of being a cheating, lying, bullying 'jerk'), or making poor judgement calls, (even to the point of prolonged law-breaking), well these are all positive character-building experiences provided one takes one's humiliation and punishment with good grace and sets oneself firmly back on the right track. Confession, followed by penance and absolution appears to be what's on offer to Armstrong, provided he's not stupid enough to fuck it up. And that's a big unknown.

I believe America wants it, needs it.

Michael Specter, writing in the New Yorker, commented, 

'Lance Armstrong was not a man, he was an idea; an American myth like Honest Abe and Johnny Appleseed. He was the little engine, brutalized by illness and then savaged by opponents, who could anyway, somebody who shrugged off hate and always took the high road.'  

And he may still be that 'somebody', provided he ditches his 'that guy' alter ego who did all the bad things that got our basically 'good' guy into so much trouble. But, I don't believe anyone with any integrity at all will ever see him as anything other than a machine that can plot - like those test-tube Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

I wrote yesterday about anticipating a denouement. My expections weren't high, but not even I expected it to be ventriloquized in quite the way it was.  Approximately two hours into the interview, Armstrong cites his former wife Kirstin's religious belief that, 'the truth will set you free.' This is, obviously, a biblical quote, (Gospel of Saint John, Chapter 8, Verse 32 if I'm not mistaken - prepare my sacramental wine please Barney, I'm about to proclaim on matters of which I know nothing at all).

My bible studies are a wee bit rusty, (having ceased in approximately 1969), but I do seem to recall that the full verse goes something like this,

'And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.'

Okay, I've cheated - it's contagious - I needed to look it up. The verse quoted above comes from the current American version of the King James Bible. The context may or may not be relevant here, but, Jesus used this argument to persuade Jews to follow him - just sayin'.

This is the denouement hook. I'm now presuming it was all agreed well in advance. So, Oprah concludes, (yawn),

'I hope the moral of this story is, the truth will set you free.'

Lance, the self-fulfilling boil, can't even own that. He says,

'Yeah, she [ex-wife Kristin] continues to tell me that.'

There's a deal there somewhere. I'm sure I'm not the only person who'll end a post with this, but, having read the brilliant David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest again fairly recently, I just have to quote from it,

'The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.'

The reality show on OWN is looking more and more likely...

Friday, January 18, 2013

Taken for a ride?

Bicycle Thief (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

Oprah - if I were you, I'd check the bicycle shed, I think you may have been robbed.

In the bilious hype that has engulfed this (two-part, it turns out) interview, Oprah Winfrey suggested that Lance Armstrong did not dodge or shirk. Well, if that's the case, then I'm a yellow jersey.

Some questions and answers to start us off,

Does Armstrong admit to blood doping and taking banned substances? Yes - but only up until 2005. He claims his comeback years were completely clean.

Does he have any regrets? Yes - that he wasn't smart enough to negotiate the problem away when USADA first approached him.

Is he sorry? Yes - sorry that he got caught and will have to 'spend the rest of [his] life trying to earn back trust and apologise to people.'

It's playing out like a well-rehearsed two-hander so far. Is that what it is? It ain't Frost/Nixon and that's for damn sure. In this first episode, Winfrey allows many of her supposedly probing questions to be dismembered by commercial breaks and others to be capped with faux aphorisms, ('I'm flawed, deeply flawed'), followed by wistful and/or defiant glares.

It's certainly artful on Armstrong's part but is there collusion? More about that tomorrow, following the denouement, but it's uncomfortably cosy from where I'm sitting. Since I found out that this is a two-parter, (rendering the word interminable somehow inadequate), I'm wondering whether Winfrey has a long-game strategy beyond blessed relief that this gem has landed in her lap just as her OWN ratings are tanking. Is she circling for a kill? He's a crafty one. Is she smarter than she appears to be? Is he stupider? We'll have to wait until tomorrow to see. Meantime let's look at this exchange.

'Did it feel wrong?'
'No. Scary.'
'Did you feel bad?'
'No. Even scarier.'
'Did you feel that you were cheating?'
'No. The scariest.'

The odd thing is that neither of these mega-celebs seem daunted by this exchange or have the slightest desire to prolong it beyond the extent of exploring the positive, comparative and superlative forms of an abstract adjective that's more appropriate to a discourse on Halloween. The flippancy is indigestible. Armstrong did not think then and does not appear to think now that he ever did anything 'wrong'. (Wrong, of course, being a cultural construct in which certain really important people find a quality of, shall we say, flexibility?).

The word 'cheat' seems inexplicably alien to an adult who you might have assumed had grown up hearing it in a playground at some point, especially if he was into sports and had come from a less-than-privileged background. But the adult Armstrong needed clarity from a dictionary rather than his conscience to come up with,

'I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don't have.'

Had his dictionary been tampered with as well as his energy shakes? Mine says, '[to] act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.' It's the 'act dishonestly or unfairly' bit that appears apposite in this context, or indeed, any context.

Whilst he is maybe a little fuzzy about the difference between right and wrong, Armstrong has known all along that what he was doing was illegal. (Whether or not one thinks the words 'illegal' and 'wrong' are linked does, again, appear to depend on one's level of celebrity). He confirms the existence of 'Motoman', the shadowy courier who'd delivered drugs to riders on tour. And he explains away the strategic ceasing of illegal drug use just prior to the testing period as 'a question of scheduling.' He really does appear to believe, still, that to beat a drug test is to be proven drug-free.

Armstrong seems also to believe that he was fronting a military campaign rather than a bicycle race and was therefore entitled to all the concessions afforded a soldier defending the realm. But then, that 'foe' narrative is central to his life story, we discover. He says it many times - if you corner me, I'm going to come out fighting. He talks about his upbringing being tough. His mother had him when she was young. They always felt like they had their 'backs against the wall'. And it was the same with team cycling. Backs against the wall, all the time. And then cancer, the ultimate backs-against-the-wall scenario,

'It was win at all costs. When I was diagnosed, I would do anything to survive. I took that attitude - win at all costs - to cycling.'

And there's an awful lot of that. With Oprah, far from having your back against the wall, you'd be pushing at an open door with this schlock, surely. There'd be no other interviewer in the world who'd have more sympathy with this monster-level hubris than the billionaire who'd made a career out of being a curious hybrid of global confessor/confessee trading in super schlock.

Winfrey has said in interviews that she felt he'd 'met the moment'. It seems to me more like he walks up to it and punches it on the nose. So, he makes some routine admissions that somehow appear to be monumental by virtue of their being so long in the coming and frank because they come packaged in a blunt 'yes' but these are not revelations and rarely are they accompanied by an admission of culpability. Whenever the possibility of accepting responsibility arises, Armstrong distances himself by switching to the third person,

'It's a major flaw and it's a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and control every outcome. And it's inexcusable.' 

And then he immediately goes on to excuse the apparently inexcusable in any number of ways, mostly by making these extraordinary measures sound bland and jobsworthy,

'There was a level of expectation. We expected guys to be fit to be able to compete.'

Which explains why taking drugs was,

' saying we have to have air in our tyres or water in our bottles. It was part of the job.'
 Which logically leads to the unflappable,

'I viewed it as a level playing field.'

How terribly sporting, old chum.

He casually admits to bullying,

'Yeah, I was a bully,'

and then undercuts it with the appalling and gratuitious discrediting of Betsy Andreu, the woman who gallantly testified against him and was rewarded with years of ferocious slagging,

'I never called you fat, Betsy.'

Here's what seems obvious to me. Armstrong refers several times to 'a process'. The whole business has a what-will-it-take feeling about it. Like the millionaire who yawningly peels off hundred-dollar bills to spring his/her errant child from whatever ghastliness it has stumbled into whilst checking his/her stock position on his/her smartphone, Armstrong's performance has the same ring of, well, okay, what do you want from me? 

He is that millionaire whose attention is on his smartphone rather than on the future of his unfortunate child. That cold, blue-eyed stare has so far been unflinching. It's the stare of a Rupert Murdoch saying, 'this is the most humble day of my life.' Murdoch is also a master at deflecting blame away from himself with breathtaking aplomb. As far as I'm aware, 'a day' cannot possess the quality of humility. Neither, it seems, can a celebrity. Lance Armstrong certainly hasn't shown signs of owning it.

Word on the wire is that if Armstrong wants to compete in triathlons and exhibition events in the future, USADA has insisted he 'testify under oath about the full extent of his doping activities'. Is the Oprah interview the first step in 'the process'? So might it be important to Armstrong to, say, establish one small 'fact' in the collective consciousness as part of this process? And might that small 'fact' be, say, the universal acceptance that the doping ended in 2005? And might that seem long enough ago for, say, a forgiveness narrative to commence? 

Yes, this is obviously a redemption story - and hopefully, tomorrow's interview will take us there. 

More tomorrow...