So, Lance Armstrong came clean. Judge Oprah Winfrey the Merciful presided over his television confession, divesting the erstwhile hero of his ill-gotten robes and presenting him to the world in naked culpability.
But it wasn’t enough. We wanted more: more pathos, more remorse, more viscera. Had Winfrey plunged her hands deep into Armstrong’s chest and tore out his still-beating heart, it wouldn’t have satiated us.
The whole affair reeks of the bloodlust of a ‘hallowed’ Inquisition. No-one doubts that he deserved it; our conviction in his conviction remains unshaken. But he didn’t bleed enough, this stony-faced pretender. A global gallery of media analysts were assembled for Armstrong’s execution; they’d even rented psychologists so that we could feast on this miscreant from the inside out. However, the martyr remained indifferent. Revenge was a dish that was served to us cold and we were not pleased.
Performance-enhancing substances sealed his fate. Well, the currently banned ones anyway. I mean, food and drink in general are ‘performance-enhancing’ substances, are they not? Come to think of it, even the bike that Armstrong rode on was, in essence, an assemblage of performance-enhancing substances: metals, plastics, rubber and so on.
Yet this sinner lied and cheated and excelled. He was revered and mythologised for chemically fuelled excellence, but as we try to wipe Armstrong’s slate clean of the qualities that we once invested in him, baleful whispers haunt the air. They revel in the plasticity of virtues, these whispered thoughts. They bring discordance to our hymns of moral righteousness.
For, was Armstrong not courageous in his charade, played out under the constant threat of exposure and potential infamy for so long? Here is fortitude and fidelity, the whispers say.
And what about guile and sagacity? Doesn’t Armstrong’s deception radiate with these qualities, which outwitted so many for so long? Moreover, was there not a bedrock of strength, of physical prowess, on which Armstrong constructed his several world triumphs? If you put me on a bicycle whose saddle was a pincushion of performance-enhancing injections, I still wouldn’t come close to Armstrong’s exceptional achievements. Nor would you, I’ll wager.
Such a will to deceive and such vision to realise it: one must grant these things to Armstrong also, despite our wishing it were otherwise. We assume – unthinkingly – that virtues are virtuous only when they tend towards ‘the Good’ or some other indubitably accepted, morally correct end. But virtues are not so pristinely schematised. Rather, they are rooted in the fleshy equivocity of life lived from the ground up. Musky scents and sweat and clay still cling to these tables of rights and wrongs, however much we try to clean them of their human, all-too-human traces.
“Dark unfathom’d caves” can bear such virtues well. So can driven cyclists, it seems…