June 26th 2020

On the pleasure of hating

People love to tell you that they "don't watch sports" but the story of Lance Armstrong provides a fascinating lens through which to observe our culture at large.

For example, even granting all that he did and all the context in which he did it, why do sports cheats act like a lightning rod for such an instinctive hatred? After all, the sheer level of distaste directed at people such as Lance eludes countless other criminals in our society, many of whom have taken a lot more with far fewer scruples. The question is not one of logic or rationality, but of proportionality.

In some ways it should be unsurprising. In all areas of life, we instinctively prefer binary judgements to moral ambiguities and the sports cheat is a cliché of moral bankruptcy — cheating at something so seemingly trivial as a sport actually makes it more, not less, offensive to us. But we then find ourselves strangely enthralled by them, drawn together in admiration of their outlaw-like tenacity, placing them strangely close to criminal folk heroes. Clearly, sport is not as unimportant as we like to claim it is. In Lance's case in particular though, there is undeniably a Shakespearean quality to the story and we are forced to let go of our strict ideas of right and wrong and appreciate all the nuance.


There is a lot of this nuance in Marina Zenovich's new documentary. In fact, there's a lot of everything. At just under four hours, ESPN's Lance combines the duration of a Tour de France stage with the depth of the peloton — an endurance event compared to the bite-sized hagiography of Michael Jordan's The Last Dance.

Even for those who follow Armstrong's story like a mini-sport in itself, Lance reveals new sides to this man for all seasons. For me, not only was this captured in his clumsy approximations at being a father figure but also in him being asked something I had not read in countless tell-all books: did his earlier experiments in drug-taking contribute to his cancer?

But even in 2020 there are questions that remain unanswered. By needlessly returning to the sport in 2009, did Lance subconsciously want to get caught? Why does he not admit he confessed to Betsy Andreu back in 1999 but will happily apologise to her today for slurring her publicly on this very point? And why does he remain so vindictive towards former-teammate Floyd Landis? In all of Armstrong's evasions and masterful control of the narrative, there is the gnawing feeling that we don't even know what questions we should be even asking. As ever, the questions are more interesting than the answers.


Lance also reminded me of how professional cycling's obsession with national identity. Although I was intuitively aware of it to some degree, I had not fully grasped how much this kind of stereotyping runs through the veins of the sport itself, just like the drugs themselves. Journalist Daniel Friebe first offers us the portrait of:

Spaniards tend to be modest, very humble. Very unpretentious. And the Italians are loud, vain and outrageous showmen.

Former directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel then asserts that "Belgians are hard workers... they are ambitious to a certain point, but not overly ambitious", and cyclist Jörg Jaksche concludes with:

The Germans are very organised and very structured. And then the French, now I have to be very careful because I am German, but the French are slightly superior.

This kind of lazy caricature is nothing new, especially for those brought up on a solid diet of Tintin and Asterix, but although all these examples are seemingly harmless, why does the underlying idea of ascribing moral, social or political significance to genetic lineage remain so durable in today's age of anti-racism? To be sure, culture is not quite the same thing as race, but being judged by the character of one's ancestors rather than the actions of an individual is, at its core, one of the many conflations at the heart of racism. There is certainly a large amount of cognitive dissonance at work, especially when Friebe elaborates:

East German athletes were like incredible robotic figures, fallen off a production line somewhere behind the Iron Curtain...

... but then Übermensch Jan Ullrich is immediately described as "emotional" and "struggled to live the life of a professional cyclist 365 days a year". We see the habit to stereotype is so ingrained that even in the face of this obvious contradiction, Friebe unironically excuses Ullrich's failure to live up his German roots due to him actually being "Mediterranean".


Imention all this as I am known within my circles for remarking on these national characters, even collecting stereotypical examples of Italians 'being Italian' and the French 'being French' at times. Contrary to evidence, I don't believe in this kind of innate quality but what I do suspect is that people generally behave how they think they ought to behave, perhaps out of sheer imitation or the simple pleasure of conformity. As the novelist Will Self put it:

It's quite a complicated collective imposture, people pretending to be British and people pretending to be French, and then they get really angry with each other over what they're pretending to be.

The really remarkable thing about this tendency is that even if we consciously notice it there is no seemingly no escape — even I could not smirk when I considered that a brash Texan winning the Tour de France actually combines two of America's cherished obsessions: winning... and annoying the French.