Saturday 3 December 2016

Escape is the only thing that matters in a world of illusion

Dion Fanning

Published 18/10/2015 | 17:00

'If Lance hadn't doped, if he had been a competitor in another sport where the odds weren't stacked against those who wanted to ride clean, he might have always been portrayed as a hero, but he would still have been as ruthless'
'If Lance hadn't doped, if he had been a competitor in another sport where the odds weren't stacked against those who wanted to ride clean, he might have always been portrayed as a hero, but he would still have been as ruthless'

While watching The Program last week, it was hard not to wonder about the nature of deception and the lies we tell ourselves. The film is a workaday retelling of the compelling pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh and others, although as it's a movie, there are no others.

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There is a truth to this. What David Walsh did was lonely and fearless but it is not the truth, which is unfortunate in a film supposedly about the pursuit of it.

There were others, not many, but there were a few. Paul Kimmage, of course, whose confrontation with Armstrong during the Tour of California in 2009 was a cinematic moment waiting to be filmed, and Pierre Ballester, who wrote L.A. Confidentiel with Walsh. Ballester's lawyer has described the movie as "historical revisionism".

This is the limitation of the biopic, the need, as Quentin Tarantino has said, to squeeze the entirety of one life into a single film. Instead of revealing something profound, it becomes a comic book story, an exercise in housekeeping as it covers the big events, conflates some others, and removes a few entirely in the desire to simplify, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness.

Television tends to do drama better than film these days for that reason and certainly The Lance Armstrong Story would make an addictive box set, given the complexity of his deception, the lives he touched, and the lives he ruined.

The director, Stephen Frears, said he saw it as a heist movie rather than a sports film, which sounds about right. Anyone who read Tyler Hamilton's book would have felt they were reading a story of Goodfellas on bikes, but with a little more blood.

Tarantino would have made a good version but he sees biopics as "corrupted cinema", although maybe the idea of making a corrupted film about a corrupted sport might have appealed to him.

The performances are excellent, particularly Ben Foster as Armstrong, but then Lance is one of the most fascinating sportsmen of the age, a man whose character drove him to do whatever it took to win, including enforce one of sport's greatest cover-ups.

If Lance hadn't doped, if he had been a competitor in another sport where the odds weren't stacked against those who wanted to ride clean, he might have always been portrayed as a hero, but he would still have been as ruthless, he would still have cared little about anything except victory.

As Walsh wrote in Seven Deadly Sins, "Lance Armstrong's greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. People. He could impress people, he could charm people, he could cajole people, he could extract love and loyalty. But when he was finished he had no feel for keeping people. He had no sense of the needs they had."

This was Lance's downfall and if anybody was thinking of running a mass doping programme in the future, they would surely learn from Armstrong's failures with the human race and conclude that the way to do it would be through a corporate programme, backed by enough money that if anyone was disaffected they would be compensated for their silence, and with plenty of good pr so the few awkward questions could be drowned out.

In the movie, Lance mocks the USADA line that he had been central to the most sophisticated doping programme sport had ever seen by asking them if they'd ever heard of East Germany. But even that comparison might have thrilled him. Here he was, essentially a man who dreamed it all up in his own bedroom, surpassing the nefarious achievements of a totalitarian state with all the advantages that gave them.

The corruption didn't begin with him and it didn't end with him either. The doping that goes on in all sports today is probably more sophisticated and certainly more secretive than anything US Postal got up to.

There is a point in the movie when Chris O'Dowd, who plays Walsh, says that he used to believe in cycling.

Is sport something we believe in or is it something that allows us to escape from all the things we must endure and don't believe in?

The Walsh character says he doesn't want to watch chemists competing against each other but what are we watching when we watch modern sport?

As sport becomes part of the entertainment industry, we might be required to suspend our disbelief as we do when we go to watch X-Men II.

The story of the NFL, where failed drug tests have little impact on its popularity, suggests that the public want entertainment first and are not that concerned by doping. They prefer their comic book bad guys to stay on the field where they can be anti-heroes in the spotlight.

Our sporting heroes are supposed to be fearless. They are supposed to be competitive and we cheer when they reveal their desire to win. When we are desperate, we talk about their hunger. Lance Armstrong possessed these qualities, you could even say that sport revealed his character but it didn't do his sport much good.

If sport is a metaphor for life, in Lance's case it was life as explained by Conrad Black's father to his son: 'Life is hell, most people are bastards and everything is bullshit.'

Maybe all professional sport is corrupted now, not just by doping but by everything that means it's a contest, not only between sportspeople, but between chemists and TV companies, hedge funds and petro-billionaires. The distance between the games kids play and professional sport is as vast as the gap between the school play and a Hollywood blockbuster.

The movies have more in common with cycling than cycling had with the Corinthian ideal we like to tell ourselves sport is about. They both have a story to tell and it's up to us to believe it or to suspend our disbelief.

Modern sport exists to conceal the void. We lose ourselves in it and often we don't care what we're losing ourselves in. Escape is the only thing that matters.

Sunday Indo Sport

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