Friday, January 18, 2013

Nobody Asked Me, But...

Special Mythed It By That Much Edition
 We've got a nexus of disillusionment to examine this week in the form of two stories out of sport that rocked America.
The question, of course, has to be asked: why?
In one case, it's pretty obvious. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France championships in a row. The greatest single athletic endeavour in the history of the planet, meaning he was the greatest athlete who ever lived.
If you believe the myth, of course. I've delved at great length into that myth here, so there's no point in reiterating it.
The other case involves the private embarassment of a college athlete thrust into a spotlight partly of his own making. Manti Te'o was a linebacker for the Notre Dame University football team, and was arguably the best player on that team (the parenthetical question has to be asked, "Were PEDs involved?")
He was runner-up in the voting for the Heismann Trophy, emblematic of the best college football player of the year. He led ND to an undefeated season and a shot at the national title. This alone would have been enough to make him a topic of national dialogue (again, why? But that's a meta-issue for now)
But the compelling aspect of Te'o's mythology is that he lost both his grandmother and his girlfriend on the same day, coming into this season. It was inspiring, the difficulties that he played through, the emotional strain, the dedication he showed.
Except at least half the story was not true. Oh, it might have been true enough, from the perspective of Te'o. After all, if you believe the stories (and personally I do), Te'o was hoodwinked -- "catfished", as the kids call it -- he was hillbilly handfished into a relationship with a girl he'd never met, but was the creation of an alleged "friend". Never existed.
So her death was less of an actual event and more an inevitable twist in the romance.
He believed her mythology, in other words. Just as we believe so many mythologies around us. Which brings us to Armstrong.
Last night, part one of his interview with Oprah Winfrey was aired. In it, he exposed his fraudulence. He was forthright about it when he limited himself to yes or no answers, I give him that much credit.
But in watching it, I realized two things.
First, he hasn't really thought through precisely what he's done (or he refuses to think it through, take your pick.) I don't think the magnitude of his scam has been made plain to him. Perhaps Oprah delves into that in part 2.
He admits he's hurt people around him, and that let his fans down as he pursued the very myth he created for the world. I think that's when mythology becomes the most dangerous. You know the old expression, "never believe your own press."
But here's what I think will be his ultimate self-revelation and he made need a therapist to get there: by creating this fantastic myth surrounding his cancer, his recovery and triumphs, Armstrong inspired millions. A week didn't go buy over the past few years when I wouldn't get an email from Armstrong, documenting the work of his LiveStrong foundation, replete with testimonials from cancer survivors -- and can we now believe all of those? -- thanking Lance for his inspiring story, which pushed them to take control of their cancer and beat it.
I fell into that trap too. I bought a bike and started riding in anticipation of his return to cycling. If he could do it at forty, I could do it at 40-something, right? The man was an animal. I, merely a beast. Perhaps I could become the oldest man to ride the Tour?
OK, probably not by a factor of 99.9999 to .0001 (that .0001 was to account for an act of God that demolished every cyclist better than I), but in setting a high bar for myself, it guaranteed that I'd accomplish more than merely saying "I'm overweight, out of shape, and need an adrenaline fix."
I'm a better man for the myth, but as I suspect many cancer survivors like me are saying, it was all built on sand and fog and the tide is coming in.
That's the aftermath of the myth and its exposure that Lance will have to deal with in some way if he truly wants to rehabilitate himself.
His appearance on Oprah's show so far has been about rehabbing his image, which speaks to me that his ego is still out of control. He was at times over the top obeisant, admitting at one point that the interview was only the second time in his life he felt he had no control over anything (unless he meant the whole revelation of his doping, which would be an evolution in his thinking, to be sure.) The first time was when he developed testicular cancer which had metastasized to his brain and lungs.
I'd like to see him rehabilitate himself, which means he should go into hiding and really contemplate what he's done, then come back and give back to the community, his fans and to the cancer community, too. Once he's humbled by the damage he's wrought, then I think America will forgive and forget.
After all, it would just be another mythology we can cling to: bad guy makes good.
What is it about America that we need our myths, whether they be good or bad? Guns protect us, but they do jsut the opposite, making the nation a more dangerous place. The past was better, except by nearly any measure at all, it was not. We're a nation of rugged individuals, yet we claim to also be a nation who cares about our neighbors, and both, BOTH, are patently untrue.
Similarly, why do we even talk about Manti Te'o? Yes, he's a great football player, but he clearly has some deep character flaws. He's human, not superhuman, but he's about to be lavished with both enormous sums of money (he's turning pro) and enormous heaps of ridicule and contempt. Why do we care so much that we would do either of those things?
His mythology, both self-created and a construct of some cruel forces around him, including his university (do you know no one bothered to send flowers to the girlfriend?) makes him out to be a bigger figure than he should be in a just and fair society.
Similarly with Armstrong: I swallowed his myth whole, despite the nagging suspicion that a guy who barely survives cancer ought not to be able to win one, much less seven, of the hardest athletic events ever devised by man. So I have to reflect on my own need for a mythology to hang onto.
So should you. We all have them.