Hubris

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

 

, ,

32 comments

  1. David Hendry

    Wow with a stretch like that you ought to open a yoga studio. I too believe Armstrong probably doped. Unlike all the intelligentsia ensconced around pro cycling, and like most of the fans in the world I don’t care. No matter what he does the haters gonna hate him and the pundits are gonna get another day of puffery dragging him down. It’s too bad someone doesn’t come up with the concept of a man being innocent until “proven” guilty. But then again that would mean the naysayers would have to find a different dead horse to flog.

  2. Peter Lin

    I’m a newbie to cycling. TDF seems like a brutal race. If the pros didn’t dope, would they be able to finish the stages so quickly? Even with all the gear and help they get, 3 weeks of racing has to take a toll on their bodies. The more important question though, what is the solution to the doping problem? Does anyone know how to fix the problem and is it even possible to implement?

  3. bob

    @Padraig – two points for using one of most favorite words!

    What I find curious is the difference in how LA is viewed if you ride/race or do not.

  4. Steve

    I’m… not actually sure what the point of the article is. The correlation between the Greek tragedies mentioned and Armstrong’s stories seems tenuous at best – as an earlier commenter said, this article is a stretch.

  5. Mike

    Armstrong “wins,” when many think he really lost. Contador “loses,” when many think he should have won, or at least been treated differently after 2 years. Quite a week for the headlines.

  6. Chris L

    The Lance story has been getting shopped around Hollywood for several years now, since at least 2004. Last I heard the project was bought by Columbia, Frank Marshall will be the producer and Gary Ross is writing the script. Matt Damon has long been tapped to play Armstrong. Damon is also narrating a documentary on Armstrong being done by Alex Gibney (Oscar winner for best documentary). The documentary has been in post production for a year now, no idea when it will come out.

  7. Souleur

    the corrolary here may be the story is not all done yet, it’s still being written and whose left in the peloton/cycling circles who REAAALLY cares? Like all the classics in school, I didn’t have the patience to read them. They drug on (no pun intended) for so long, I just didn’t have the energy nor interest to pursue them. So too does the tale of LA. Its dragging on for so long that justice has been lost..IF…IF they prove something occured. (which I believe did)

    does justice mean anything if its delayed beyond a reasonable time, such as ‘retirement’

  8. Jack

    seems your tragedy is that there will be no trial and your hubris to write with a tone as bitter as floyd’s voice… for me, US tax payer, i am relieved that i am not having to pay for something as farcical as a trial. like everyone else you can think whatever you will for free. all those years of pining away, hoping for just one positive test have on this subject made you morose… maybe to cheer you up you could schedule a ride and lunch with besty, frankie, floyd, and alberto


    1. Author
      Padraig

      All: Thanks for the impassioned words. It’s always fun to get disparate responses to a post.

      Jack: You seem to have read much into the post that’s simply not there. I’m not bitter, nor am I morose. The post is simply a look at Armstrong’s story through the lens of Greek myth. To me, it’s an entertaining consideration of the story, and I think it’s worth pointing out the grand stage on which his efforts have played out.

      The larger point here is that in recalling Greek myth we see how human Armstrong’s story really is.

  9. Captain H

    Padraig,

    Your post is spot-on and further highlights what I consider to be the real tragedy of the story. Namely; when presented with infinite opportunities to right the wrong and admit systemic doping by he and his cabal, LA and his team (some anyway) lacked the moral courage to do so. Had LA remained retired (and his mouth shut) this whole thing disappears into the dustbin of history. But no, as noted by you to do so would have been contrary to his genetic makeup. Ironic that it took another cheat to expose (and in some eyes confirm) the hypocrisy.

    History is replete with examples of the practice of doping dating back to the earliest years of the TDF. It also addresses the point made by Mr. Hendry above; those who cycle and follow the sport closely are often the ones who see LA’s behavior in such a negative light. So is it our limited knowledge of what it’s like to suffer and try to hang on to that wheel on a Saturday group ride and not get dropped that makes us detest those who cheat to do so? Or is it the genuine love of the sport; the pageantry, the sacrifice, the willingness to train alone on cold, wet and windy days that makes us detest those who cheat to win? Or is it just the fact that when confronted by those in the sport he purportedly loves, that an intelligent, mature man and a father responsible for the moral behavior of his children, couldn’t tell the truth?

    Like the Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire steroids cases before, we now know that it was endemic to sport and for all we know, maybe still is. That everyone now is willing to move on and look ahead shows me that we have accepted what happened then…. and now I pray we pay closer attention in the future to preclude its occurrence.

    144 days to the ’12 TDF. Vive le Tour!

  10. Troutdreams

    Bravo! Very well done and I enjoyed the creative reach to tie in a classic with a modern day drama. The parallel’s between this Greek tragedy and modern day drama are startling clear, but I guess that’s why it’s a classic.

  11. Scott Kingsley

    A refreshing read after too many Lance/Alberto doping articles today on other sites. I’ll be interested to read the next chapter of this story if USADA and WADA get any new info and act on it.

  12. DWF

    Sphinx: What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?

    Lance: My ball(s)!

    Sphinx: You are correct, sir! Argh!!!!!!

  13. Moose

    Federal prosecutors dropped the case presumably for lack of evidence sufficient to bring charges. Can we move on, already?

  14. Pingback: winners don't use drugs.....

  15. Eddie

    I came to this site to read Pelkey: I found your article entertaining. I don’t think we will ever know the truth behind the Armstrong “era or error” take your pick. There are way too many lawyers involved on both sides for the truth to come to light.

    Before anyone goes off thinking I hate lawyers, understand that there are good and bad in all people, lawyers included. There are many that believe the best defense possible in the that old oath, does not merely apply tol the best true defense.

    The opinion I got from the small release of the non-prosecution decision was, that drugs were bought, and used, however there was no way to prove that it was done with US Postal service funds. Therefore no federal case could be made. Next batter up, (pardon the baseball pun) US cycling.

  16. Clay

    Some time ago I read an interesting commentary.
    Lance did everything better than the competition. Ate better, trained better, assembled a better team, had the best director, etc, etc.
    And IF he doped, he did that better too in that he never tested positive.
    At this point, all opinions have been formed and sadly some journalists have gotten on the bandwagon “must have doped”.
    I think what most underestimate is Lance’s ability to simply get mad and summon adrenaline (all natural) like few others before him. It really was “Lance Armstrong’s War”.
    At this point the entire discussion is “coffee shop talk” at best. Any more $$ spent searching for truth is not such a good investment.

  17. Bobby

    Matt Damon aged himself out the role a while ago. He’s about the same age as Lance in real life. Jake Gyllenhaal was the most recent to have signed on but that was a good 3 years ago by now. Jake did spend a chunk of time with Lance in Austin to research the role and even did a few crits/group rides under cover.

    Back in ’04 Frank Marshall did shoot a bunch of second unit footage at the Tour to get a feel for the action to have just in case.

    The tricky part with Lance movie in regards to getting the green light is that “his story” is still being written. Granted, the pace has slowed down a bunch recently but between his divorce/break up with Ms Crow and comeback, quite a few elements were always in flux. If anything at this point it might be best to keep it shelved for a while so that it can get the Ali treatment.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I’m not a screenwriter, though I do ride with a couple, and I were I to collaborate with someone and write a screenplay of Armstrong’s life, I’d handle it much the way Mel Gibson handled Hamlet. Hamlet dies, fade to black. I’d leave out all that confusing business with the arrival of the King of Norway. With Armstrong, telling that story is easy. He speaks atop the dais at the ’05 Tour, steps down and grabs one of his kids and gives ‘em a hug. Fade to black. Let’s never forget what an amazing story it is.

  18. Chris L

    @ Bobby

    How is it “tricky”?? If they can make a film about Facebook 2 years ago you can easily make a film about Lance. Heck, Olive Stone made a film about Bush while he was still in office!

  19. MCH

    Once again, I’m reminded that many see the world as black or white. Others see it as shades of gray. Personally, I prefer the gray.

    Bravo to Padraig for illustrating this story in your unique, multi-faceted shades of gray!

  20. Mike

    Brilliant! One thing that many forget (or choose to ignore) is that IF LA doped, he was in very good and complete company with the peloton of the time (and that PEDs don’t make someone something they are not … PEDs only emhance). Regardless of where one stands on the issue, I think all can agree that it has been quite a story (I’d suggest “quite a ride” but that pun is too obvious!). I hope all the upheaval in pro cycling does not discourage anyone from enjoying their own riding.

  21. Pingback: 13-year old girl critically injured in OC hit-and-run; Tour of California press conference in Beverly Hills « BikingInLA

  22. DavidA

    Here’s a plotline that I lifted from IMDB.
    Much simpler and easier to follow. Nice parallels and fraught with endless possibilities and twists, too.

    “A Day at the Races” The Marx Brothers
    A vet posing as a doctor, a race horse owner and his friends struggle to help keep a sanitarium open with the help of a misfit racehorse.

  23. Gray Wolf

    I don’t think comparing Armstrong to Oedipus is a stretch at all – I think it’s spot-on. Bravo, Padraig! Great post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>