I’ve just updated the philosophical sports film list that I’ve compiled to include the recently released The Armstrong Lie and the forthcoming Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist. The former I’ve seen, the latter I haven’t.
The Armstrong Lie is a slightly disjointed film that jumps back and forth between Armstrong’s hey-day, his complete fall from grace and his early attempts to regain control over his destroyed reputation. The disjointed nature can be explained by the fact that the director (Alex Gibney) set out to make one film – about Lance’s comeback from cancer in 2009 – and ended up recording Lance’s downfall. Unfortunately, though it provides some interesting insights and interviews with some of Lance’s (former) friends and colleagues, its lack of coherence detracts from what is a fascinating story.
…and the most interesting philosophical question – that the film doesn’t address – is who actually won the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005?
The list of philosophical films can be found here: Sports films relating to philosophical issues
Following the apparent ‘confession’ to Oprah Winfrey, have we actually learnt anything more about Armstrong? My inclination is to say no. What we know about Armstrong is that doper or not, cheat or not, he was still an exceptional cyclist. Yet, what the interview emphasised was his Machiavellian streak. He knows how to play people, to influence them and demand their loyalty and he’s never been afraid to get what he wants through using them and casting them away when they’re no longer needed. Unfortunately, as with all Machiavellian characters, the trail of destruction that they leave behind eventually catches up with them. The interview with Oprah was an attempt to wrestle some control back over his life and other’s perception of him. He failed miserably. The bitterness and betrayal that people feel towards Armstrong is so deep that only a genuine display of humility and remorse would have given any chance at redemption. Instead, his insincerity was apparent and he’s only managed to damage his reputation further.
Armstrong’s narrative will be used as morality play. It is the story of the bad guy who gets to the top and then suffers a dramatic and humiliating fall. But is this a fair representation? What ever you might think of Armstrong and his character, the fact is that he has raised millions of dollars for a cancer charity. If he hadn’t had doped, if he hadn’t had made a dramatic comeback from suffering such a debilitating and deadly disease this money might not have been raised and peoples lives that are afflicted by cancer might be all the poorer. So the utilitarian might calculate that the Armstrong story is actually a good one whereby his choice to cheat had more beneficial consequences than a choice not to.
My view is that Armstrong is a flawed character that has no empathy for others. He isn’t someone that I would want to spend any time with. But that is not to say he hasn’t done amazing or inspirational things. And he rightly says that he’s not the only one that is culpable in the doping scandal within cycling. A culture developed whereby doping was the norm and he used that to his advantage. If we agree with Armstrong’s view on cheating (which I don’t necessarily) and that cheating is the deliberate attempt to break rules to gain an advantage on others, and there is no real or theoretical advantage since ‘everyone is doing it’ then at the very least we can say that Armstrong is guilty of gamesmanship – in that he attempted to use the rules or the lack of the enforcement of the rules to his advantage. The perception of Armstrong being more bad (yes I know it’s not good English) than others (e.g. Millar, Hamilton, etc.) is that a) he lied more about his doping and with greater conviction b) he is still trying to manipulate his audience into believing and trusting him. But this doesn’t make him technically any more guilty than any of the other athletes who have been guilty of doping.
So perhaps rather than feeling vitriolic towards Armstrong, we should just recognise him for the deeply flawed person that he is. But we also shouldn’t forget the good that has come out of him.