Lance Armstrong: How the Mighty (Book) Has Fallen

It's not about the bike.

Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike.

What are we to make, at this point, of Lance Armstrong’s best-selling 2000 book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life? I have to admit that I never read the book, and my interest in doing so has not increased in the wake of accusations of doping. But why? After all, the book was a best-seller, one by an athlete whom many regard — still regard — as a hero.

The picture above is one I took, of a box of free books a neighbour of mine left outside on the sidewalk. When I ran by one recent Saturday afternoon, only one book remained: Armstrong’s book. Funny but sad, I thought. When I passed again roughly 24 hours later, the box looked exactly the same: just one book, unwanted even for free. I snapped a picture.

(Another perspective on the book’s value: Amazon is still selling the book, for about $11, though you can also buy a used copy via Amazon for just a penny — in other words, for the cost of shipping it.)

The book, as you can surmise from reading any of a number of reviews, tells the story of Armstrong’s rise to prominence in cycling, his battle with and ultimately triumph over cancer, through to his victory at the 1999 Tour de France. It is, in short, the story that made him a hero to so many.

We are now all but certain that Armstrong’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the cycling world was aided by pharmaceuticals, a sophisticated and rigorous doping program that he not only stuck to but bullied his teammates into adopting. Should he still be regarded as a hero in any sense? And is his book still worth reading? We all know now that the book left out crucial details, but as far as I’ve heard there’s no reason to doubt the basics: he had cancer, he had surgery, he “beat” the cancer, he trained hard, he won the Tour de France. So the basics of the hero story remain as valid today as they were when the book came out over ten years ago. So why is the book now effectively — literally! — consigned to the trash-heap?

For some, the explanation might be simple personal disillusionment. When a hero falls, he falls really hard. So some who previously lionized Armstrong may not want even to think back upon what they now see as their own naiveté. Others may not want to be ‘inspired’ by someone they see as a liar: perhaps they just don’t want to listen to life lessons and inspiring stories, no matter how useful, told by someone who cheated and then lied about it.

The best answer, I think, lies in the loss of trust. Armstrong’s message was one of hope and courage, and it can only really bring hope and courage to the reader if the reader trusts Armstrong’s words. Armstrong’s message was like that of the kind, experienced physician in whom the cancer patient puts his or her faith. “We’re going to take good care of you,” says the physician. Armstrong’s message: You too can triumph over adversity. Neither messenger can guarantee results: surviving cancer is much more a matter of luck, and good medical care, than it is of gutsy determination. But the other half of the message — the reassurance, the comfort, the message of hope — requires that the patient put their faith in the messenger. And that is the part of his own message that Armstrong so effectively killed.

2 comments so far

  1. Jim Sabin on

    Hi Chris

    As always, an excellent post!

    As I was reading it, and before I got to the last paragraph, I thought about the connection to trust in medical care, a topic I’ve thought about a lot. Then I came upon your kind, experienced oncologist. Trust, and the sense of being taken seriously and cared about, is a huge part of effective health care. When I ended my practice one of my patients said – “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I always felt there was love in the office when we met.” I treasured that comment. Even though most of Armstrong’s admirers never met him, his (apparent) lying about doping leads them to feel let down personally. In addition to loss of trust it’s like losing the relationship with the kindly physician.

    Best

    Jim

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Jim:

    Thanks for your comment. I think the parallel between the non-scientific (human) part of clinical care and the value (whatever it is) of self-help / motivational books deserves a lot more attention. And I say that neither to value nor devalue one or the other. I just think it’s an interesting (if imperfect) parallel.

    Chris.


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