Someday Lance Armstrong’s story will be told on the big screen. It’s too juicy a tale not to be developed into movie candy. It’s got all the stuff Hollywood loves: There’s the fame, greatest-ever success, hard-driving type-A character, the underprivileged youth and the transformation from brash upstart to seasoned professional by the ultimate proving ground: Cancer. And after escaping the jaws of death—literally—he then cheats career death by being exonerated at the end of a federal investigation. Remember, this is Hollywood, where the facts are as flexible as the colors on a painter’s canvas.
Here’s the thing: When the day comes that someone is asked to write a treatment of the story, they can’t do it straight. Or at least, they shouldn’t do it straight. Because Armstrong’s story is writ large, like puff-of-smoke skywriter large, for the story to capture the truly epic triumphs and tragedies of his life, it must be set as a Greek tragedy.
Naturally, the primary overlay would be with Oedipus. Rejected by his father at birth because the Oracle at Delphi told him that any son would kill him, Oedipus was adopted by Polybus, the king of Corinth. Armstrong’s birth name was Gunderson, you may recall. While still a young man, Oedipus learns from a drunk that he isn’t the son of Polybus and Merope; rather, he was adopted by them. In consulting the Oracle at Delphi all he learns is that he is destined to kill his father.
Like all proper Greek characters, Oedipus believes he can escape his destiny. He mistakenly believes that what the Oracle has told him is that he is destined to kill Polybus and marry Merope. So he sets out for Thebes. Here Hollywood frames young Armstrong’s journey to Thebes as his development first as a triathlete, then as Olympic cyclist, then as pro. Armstrong’s victory in the World Championship road race is the vanquishing of Oedipus’ father, King Laius. Even without knowing, he begins to fulfill the prophecy.
We then shift gears to the myth of Prometheus and the April day in 1994 when three Gewiss riders swept the podium at Fleche Wallonne. Armstrong is said to have been fourth in line when the three Gewiss riders pulled away from the storming peloton. That humbling, followed by Michele Ferrari’s notorious post-race statement about EPO not being dangerous sets the stage for Armstrong’s 1996 victory at Fleche Wallonne. Armstrong has been accused of adopting the European method of training in that he worked with Ferrari. The overlay here is that he, like Prometheus, stole fire, in adopting their methods and winning a classic.
Naturally, such a feat couldn’t go without punishment. Testicular cancer replaces the rock to which Prometheus is chained. And his liver that regenerates each night after being pecked out during the day by an eagle? Chemotherapy. But our hero, like Prometheus, is immortal and doesn’t die while enduring a punishment that would kill any mortal. Recall that Armstrong’s chances for survival were less than 10 percent.
Now we shift back to Oedipus. In his journey to Thebes, after unknowingly taking a step toward his destiny by vanquishing his father at a crossroads, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx. Bear in mind the Sphinx asks a riddle no one has answered correctly. Ever. Sound anything like winning seven Tours de France? The Sphinx is so stunned by Oedipus’ correct answer—mon dieu!—that it throws itself into the sea, where it dies.
Does that remind anyone of the emotional tenor of the response ASO and all of France had to Armstrong’s 2005 win? Let’s call it hand-wringing of mythic proportions.
It is at this point that Oedipus consummates the act for which we still know his name in its adjectival form—Oedipal—when he marries his mother. Much has been made of the similarity in appearance to his mother of Armstrong’s various romantic attachments. Ahem.
Now, the way the myth goes, Thebes endures a period of extended infertility. Sound familiar? Of course, Armstrong’s life takes an odd turn in that his infertility ends. But for many years, he, like the city of Thebes, endured a barren, uh, land. There’s another way to read this, of course. The field in question is the field of competition. His lack of wins due to being out of competition is the fallow field.
What Oedipus doesn’t understand is that he is the cause of infertility. The unavenged death of King Laius is the source of the city’s pestilence. And it is here that our hero’s travails take an eerie turn. Oedipus, in a move that can only be described as hubris, decides he is going to solve the infertility problem. In his quest to learn its cause he finds out that he did, in fact, kill his father. That he did marry his mother. Jocasta, his wife/mother, by some accounts, kills herself. And by some accounts Oedipus is blinded, either at his own hand (isn’t that rich!) or by a surviving servant of King Laius.
The import here is that in fulfilling his destiny Oedipus also exceeded it. Thebes was destined to suffer because he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. It can be said Armstrong was destined to return to competition because he was destined to miss it. He was destined to be concerned for his legacy with the rise of Alberto Contador. That he believed he might improve on his legacy was Armstrong’s hubris. He had to return and in that he had to fail. Had Armstrong never returned to competition it seems probable Landis would never have felt a need to open his mouth. In the myth, Oedipus’ blindness is both literal and metaphoric. Hubris is characterized as behavior that is tone-deaf to the events around the person. Anyone reading Lance Armstrong’s Twitter feed for the last two years can be forgiven for thinking that he’d never heard the name Jeff Novitzky. One of the qualities of hubris is to be out of touch with reality.
Ultimately, the hubris sufferer falls from grace. For challenging the gods the protagonist is humiliated. Before the cycling world knew the name Novitzky, Armstrong’s reputation among most cyclists was sterling. The difference is that the investigation that was sparked by him coming out of retirement has caused many of the cyclists who were his most ardent fans to conclude he was doping as he competed. The cycling world has turned on him, and in that blind Oedipus’ fate of being led through Greece by his daughter, Antigone, rings a note of truth.
Painting: Oedipus et Sphinx by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres