How did Lance Armstrong captivate so many Americans with his story, despite allegations all along that it was a deception? Recall that Armstrong’s Tour de France victories came at a time when the white American male appeared to be in crisis. In years of disorienting economic change and threats from overseas, Armstrong’s story – like those of so many successful white athletes – was one that many Americans desperately wanted to believe.
As Alex Gibney tells it, the film that eventually became The Armstrong Lie was supposed to document Lance Armstrong’s comeback to cycling at the 2009 Tour de France, four years after he made history by winning his seventh straight Tour. If things would had gone as planned, Gibney’s all-access documentary would have proved Armstrong was a true sporting immortal and finally put to rest niggling allegations that he used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
But all that changed as Gibney assembled the film.
The confessions of Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, two of Armstrong’s former teammates, for using PEDs came out in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Finally, the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) dogged investigation of Armstrong revealed in 2012 that the use of PEDs on his cycling teams had been expected, systematic, and modeled by Armstrong himself from the very beginning of his historic run at the Tour.
In January 2013, Armstrong confessed his guilt during a nationally televised interview with Oprah Winfrey. This revelation came after a decade of Armstrong vehemently denying he had ever used PEDs and bullying any critics who dared to make such allegations.
Near the end of The Armstrong Lie, Gibney’s interviews reveal that Armstrong was clearly aware of the seductive power and economic value of his self-aggrandizing public narrative, and that he often leveraged it, particularly with American audiences, to profess and maintain his innocence. Gibney adds:
Lance deceived his fans. But they were willing to be fooled. People loved the beautiful lie, more than the ugly truth. The story was a bestseller. It made him $125 million.
Gibney’s provocative statement got me thinking: How and why did so many Americans suspend their faculties of reason and better judgment to develop such a deeply felt faith in “Saint Lance,” as some dubbed him?
This question is best answered through reference to C. Wright Mills’ famous adage: “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of society can be understood without understanding both.”
New millennium America
It is an interesting coincidence that Armstrong won his first Tour de France in the same year – 1999 – that the film Fight Club captivated audiences of American men and Susan Faludi published her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.
These two texts were instrumental in popularizing a narrative that American white men were experiencing a perceived crisis. In a social world remade by feminism, multiculturalism, rabid consumerism, deindustrialization, and a recent wave of global capitalism, the white American male was no longer longer valued and respected as he once had been.
Two years earlier, a similar story of American white men’s supposed loss of status, opportunity, and authority was narrated through American sports. In a Sports Illustrated special report published in December 1997, titled “Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?”, white male athletes were imagined as suffering inferiority complexes as a result of black athletes dominating sports like football, basketball, and track and field.
In short, there was a certain kind of nostalgic longing in our culture, often expressed by white men of various ages, for the return of a past type of American man, perhaps even an athletic hero.
Only two years later, the tragic events of 9/11 provided a new rationalization for this yearning.
In his response to these terrorist attacks, President Bush, as the symbolic leader of the nation and American men, quickly popularized a performance of masculinity – one more easily performed by white men – where American men were valued and valorized for being strong, unapologetically manly, and self-confident protectors and providers of a fearful, wounded national family.
As Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, put it at the time:
A certain style of manliness is once again being honored and celebrated in our country since September 11th. You might say it suddenly emerged from the rubble of the last quarter century, and emerged when a certain kind of man came forth to get our great country out of the fix it was in.
Enter Lance Armstrong.
Manufacturing “Lance America”
In 1999, Armstrong accomplished the unimaginable by winning the Tour de France just three years after overcoming a testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain and left him with a less than fifty percent chance of survival.
By September, 2000, the flesh-and-blood Armstrong – whose prickly cockiness had been well documented up to that point – was proclaimed a changed man and transformed into a mythical, superhero-like figure: Lance America.
This transformation was mainly produced through Armstrong’s autobiography (co-written by Sally Jenkins), It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life. The narrative gained popular validity as it was retold across American media. And after Armstrong won his second straight Tour in July 2000, his legend only grew.
Armstrong’s new stature as Lance America was confirmed in September 2000 when Susan Myrick, Representative from North Carolina, sponsored a bill honoring Armstrong with a Congressional Gold Medal. In the press release that accompanied the bill, Myrick described him this way: “Lance Armstrong’s courageous spirit is an inspiration to all Americans…. He is one of the first true American heroes of the 21st century.”
There were a variety of reasons why many Americans believed in Armstrong’s story and found it personally meaningful. Some saw him as the best of the human spirit in flesh and bone. Others envisioned Armstrong as the living embodiment of the ideal of the American rugged individualist. Cancer survivors and their loved ones often saw Lance, as Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight described him, simply as “hope as man.” Armstrong was cast as a living, breathing example that recovery was not only possible, but that one’s future could be better.
But each of these views was a product of the broader heroic narrative that fabricated Lance Armstrong as Lance America.
Through this narrative, Americans were also urged to admire Armstrong in specifically masculine terms, whether as a modern-day American cowboy, Superman, or “miracle man.” On the cover of his autobiography, Armstrong was cast not only as the “winner of the Tour de France” and a “cancer survivor,” but as “husband, father, son, human being.” In the slang of the era, Armstrong displayed “swagger”: an unspoken, yet distinctly masculine coolness, confidence, and certitude. His athletic prowess on his bike demonstrated his indisputable masculine bona fides.
Armstrong also embodied a distinctly Texas-flavored form of American patriotism that embraced the masculine spirit of the outlaw, the defiant rebel who lived above the law and answered to no one. For many Americans, Lance was simply the man. Corporate sponsors, sports media, mainstream media, Hollywood celebrities and studios, and local and national politicians from both sides of the aisle all lined up to bask in (and profit from) his meteoric light.
At this point, perhaps it is easier to recognize how the mythical figure, Lance America, was unwittingly fashioned as the polar opposite of the anxious, uncertain, and unconfident American white man in crisis brought to life in Fight Club and described in Faludi’s Stiffed. In Lance America, Americans witnessed the triumphant return of a seemingly universally admired and unquestionably manly white man blessed with good looks and good fortune that dominated his chosen profession.
After 9/11, this unspoken masculine pleasure in Armstrong’s victories and media persona certainly still resonated with some American fans. But his additional four straight Tour wins were most often regarded in colorblind terms as a victory that elicited pride in all Americans in a time of national crisis. This sentiment is best seen in a US Postal Service print advertisement: “He won. The Team won. America won. Congratulations!” In eight words of marketing hyperbole, Armstrong’s victory was universalized for all Americans to share as their own.
And all along there was also a subtle racial component to Armstrong’s appeal.
Juliet Macur’s recent book, Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong, exemplifies a trend in commentaries written on Armstrong only after his confession to having used PEDs. These commentaries highlight how he used his cancer experience and advocacy as rhetorical shields both to protect himself from accusations of having used performance-enhancing drugs and to paint himself as morally superior to his critics.
Yet, no commentaries have mentioned the implicit way in which Armstrong’s performance of idealized white masculinity also helped to facilitate the widespread presumption of Armstrong’s innocence as well as the corresponding shock and dissonance associated with his eventual confession.
Armstrong’s performance was a product of his white skin coupled with his particular way of performing white masculinity as a productive, hard-working champion who gave back to, and provided for, others in need (cancer survivors). His superhero-like actions on and off of his bike enabled many Americans to perceive him through a prism of white racial stereotypes as essentially innocent, virtuous, and good, rather than through the more complicated details of his life. This way of imagining Armstrong – a way of seeing more likely to be performed by white Americans – enabled him to enjoy the benefit of doubt in the midst of years of allegations and incriminating details of his doping. Notably, the charges and evidence of his doping came almost exclusively from sources outside the United States. Thus, they were often casually dismissed as post-9/11, anti-American sentiment.
It’s not about the bike
There’s a point in The Armstrong Lie where Alex Gibney admits that in the midst of the 2009 Tour, when it appeared that an eighth win was possible, the director could feel himself pulling for Armstrong despite his skepticism about the cyclist’s innocence.
I must admit: I know what he means. I first experienced the allure of the fantasy of Lance America as a 28-year-old after reading It’s Not About the Bike. On the first day of a vacation in the Rocky Mountains, despite cautions to take it easy, I rented a bike, rode hard, and imagined myself as the superhero.
I spent the next day in bed hobbled by altitude sickness.
Later, I experienced the allure of this fantasy when watching Armstrong race during several of his subsequent Tour victories, as well as when watching several other iterations of a “great white male athletic hope.”
As it is given life through athletics, the fantasy of white male dominance – whether the athlete is Lance Armstrong, Tom Brady, Lionel Messi, or Michael Phelps – is a particularly seductive ideology, too difficult for many white men to resist. It’s something that most dare not talk about. Something of which they may not even be consciously aware. Yet, it is a key ingredient in the alchemy of many American white men’s love of sports and sport figures like Armstrong.
Today, we can recognize that the appeal of Lance Armstrong’s beautiful lie was rooted in Americans’ appetite for a comforting figure, a national hero. Lance America’s story remedied an imagined belief in whiteness and masculinity as being under attack more than it ever told us about the flesh-and-blood cyclist.
Kyle W. Kusz is associate professor in the Kinesiology Department at the University of Rhode Island, specializing in cultural studies of sport. He is author of Revolt of the White Athlete: Race, Media and the Emergence of Extreme Athletes in America.