Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Confession is good for the soul — provided you have one

RIGHT now, somewhere in Ireland, someone’s giving their name and telling everybody in the room how they stole from dying relatives or spent their children’s Holy Communion money or sold the curtains for drink.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous call this confession the "drunkalogue". It’s the infinitely sad monologue of how the drinker lost control of their life through alcohol dependence.

The Catholic Church has favoured private confession, at least since the Inquisition, but the public confession has always had great appeal to totalitarian regimes: Get the evil-doer out there to repent — often before execution — and give the details of their crimes and names of their co-conspirators pour encourager les autres.

The market for public confession never dies, which is why the New York Times report at the weekend that Lance Armstrong may be in talks with America’s sporting authorities before going public with an admission of lengthy, sophisticated, and productive drug-taking, attracted so much attention. The notion of arrogant Armstrong coming before world media in sackcloth and ashes, humbling himself by admitting to what we know he did, has enormous appeal.

In theory, a confession would include details of how he did it — not unlike the 19th century case where, after a woman was found not guilty by a jury, one of the lawyers was heard to mutter that, now she was protected by the double jeopardy rule, maybe she’d share the details of how she managed the perfect murder. Armstrong could explain how he managed to pass more than 500 drug tests and how the ones he didn’t pass somehow were not acted upon. He could also implicate doctors and other co-conspirators, which would be a great step forward, if Paul Kimmage, David Walsh, and Tyler Hamilton hadn’t already pretty much established their identities already in reports and books.

The suggestion is that drug-testing authorities would be amenable to reducing the duration of his ban from sport as a quid pro quo for learning how they were codded. The drawback to this is that the information is necessarily historic. In other words, they would learn how yesterday’s cheats did it. The problem is not yesterday’s cheats. The problem is the boundless creativity of tomorrow’s cheats.

In other areas of unorthodox creativity, the culprit, when caught, serves their time before doing the poacher-turned-gamekeeper turnaround. Frank Abagnale, on whom Steven Spielberg’s movie, Catch Me If You Can, was based, did go to prison when he was convicted of impersonating airplane pilots and living a life of reckless disregard for the safety and money of others. It was only after he’d paid his dues to society that he wrote a bestselling book, consulted on the film, and was hired by corporations to advise them on gaps in their security.

In the case of Armstrong, in contrast, the plea-bargaining seems to be pre-emptive: If he tells all, he might be allowed to compete in triathlons and other sporting events governed by USADA in as few as eight years. No doubt scientists might be interested to see if beneficial residue has been left in his system after years of messing with it, but that’s a bit of stretch, as justifications for sentence amelioration go. Any reduction allowing Armstrong back into competition would facilitate his re-invention. If the title wasn’t already taken, the book and movie might be called Redemption, with the subtitle: "How one man manipulated sporting authorities and media".

Because that’s what Armstrong has done, all his life, and what he should not now be permitted to do again: Manipulate the sporting powers and world media and create a perception that everybody was doing drugs and having transfusions and that, therefore, both were OK. This man has a genius for persuading the gullible into seeing him as a courageous hero, whereas, as Walsh has pointed out, the heroism — the real heroism — was to be found elsewhere.

"I saw men and women," Walsh says, "who had parts of their lives and parts of their hearts tied up in the other side of the argument. People who had lots to lose. People who grappled with their consciences every day and pushed themselves to do the right thing. As much as anything I have seen in the sporting arena, those struggles spoke of heroism and character."

Yet heroism and character were always attributed to Armstrong, largely because he survived cancer. Or, if we accept the warlike language about cancer condemned by American writer Susan Sontag, he "beat cancer". That’s how the website of Livestrong, the charity he fronted, describes it. It says that when Armstrong got prostate cancer which metastasised to his brain and lungs, he researched treatments and underwent several gruelling surgeries. So he’s a hero. Never mind the implication that those who do not survive cancer and who may not have the option of these treatments are not heroes, or that accepting death and making the best of the time remaining does not require enormous courage. More than a century ago, American psychologist William James warned against what he called the "religion of the healthy minded", with its high value on "the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry". Mass media in the 21st century still subscribes to the religion of the healthy minded, and Armstrong has gained immeasurably as a result.

TO survive cancer and to subsequently subject your recovered body to shockingly artificial interventions in the interests of winning trophies is a peculiar brand of heroism. But it was useful to Armstrong to become the poster boy for cancer survival. It cast an aura around him which, when melded with his psychotic traits, rendered him close to invulnerable. His lawyer this weekend described the cyclist as "strong". That’s one way to put it, and it’s a description which might make the supine media reps who backed away from Kimmage and Walsh and Alex Butler feel better about turning into fawning acolytes rather than the journalists they claim to be.

Armstrong survived cancer. Fair dues to him. But he was a doper before and after his cancer, and — as Tyler Hamilton’s wonderful account, The Secret Race, demonstrates — he was also a terrifying bully who intimidated and belittled colleagues, competitors and media. When he failed to cow a few brave journalists, he went legal, and that’s one reason to doubt the likelihood of him now doing a full public confession: He’d have a lot of money to repay.

A confession might help former sponsors, like the US Postal Service, go after him for some of the millions they invested in associating their brand with him and his so-called "values"

The apparent willingness of authorities to even consider plea-bargaining with Armstrong seems to be based on him being successful at wrongdoing, uncaught, for an astonishing length of time.

Let’s hope we don’t witness a double payoff for sustained rule-breaking that grievously tainted a sport.

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