Thursday, January 2, 2014

Lance Armstrong and the uses of enchantment

Posted By on 01.02.14 at 10:45 AM

An ambivalent New York Times story rips and praises Lance Armstrong.
  • AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Michael Paulsen
  • An ambivalent New York Times story rips and praises Lance Armstrong.
Juliet Macur of the New York Times wanted the fairy tale to continue.

Macur, a sportswriter looking back at 2013 on her beat, called out Lance Armstrong in Tuesday's Times for blowing a "perfect opportunity to apologize for perpetuating a fairy tale that had been built on lies." The fairy tale was that during the years Armstrong was the world's greatest bicyclist he was pharmaceutically pristine: "He was the guy who said that he would be crazy to put drugs into his body after surviving cancer. . . . He was the guy who said that he would never do anything to jeopardize the faith that millions of people had in him. . . . He would never dope, he told the public again and again."

And people believed. But he wasn't that guy.

Yet are fairy tales ever built on truths? Fairy tales aren't simply untrue, they cannot be true—involving as they do magic beans and talking mirrors and spinning wheels that turn straw to gold. Does Macur now believe that the tale Armstrong spun could never have been true, that there was no way he could have won the Tour de France seven years in a row without doping? If so, she agrees with Armstrong, who told Oprah last January that it wouldn't have been humanly possible.

Only children—and not all children—believe in fairy tales. Fairy tales conclude in lessons and admonitions, and children solemnly consider them. Macur would like the tale of Lance Armstrong to have continued in that vein.

"With millions of people watching," she wrote, "he could have dropped to his knees [before Oprah], wept and begged forgiveness—saying he had doped and lied about it to protect his cancer foundation." But Macur knew Armstrong would not. "I knew Armstrong well enough to know that he couldn't fake sincerity." And sure enough, "in what could most kindly be described as a public-relations disaster, Armstrong failed to offer his fans what they were seeking: genuine contrition. For a few minutes here and there, he seemed sorry, but only about being caught."

Macur misses her own point. Armstrong didn't need to fake sincerity—and why should she have wanted him to? He offered Oprah real sincerity, the red-blooded sincerity of the unrepentant. What he displayed is so old-fashioned we've forgotten there's a word for it: genuine attrition—which is sorrow for sin strictly out of fear of being damned. It used to be fashionable among aging kings and prelates who in their salad days lived by Augustine's famous prayer, "Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet."

Armstrong was a liar who'd doubly damn himself by turning into a phony. The headline to Macur's story on Armstrong was "On a Big Stage, a Tired Act," so I wonder if she realizes she wrote a tribute to him.

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