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His was an empire built on lies


NOT ABOUT THE BIKE: This was not just a character flaw in the man, it was a strategic scheme

The manner in which Armstrong has gone from superhero to vilified cheat has few parallels. Did we want to believe in the story as much as he wanted us to?

Sport, like any other field of activity in the modern era - be it the sciences or spirituality - is about adapting to the demands of the day. Professionalism has replaced the amateur age and the bar is at a new height, but ethical and moral expectations remain unchanged.
Sport is perhaps the last of man's ideological frontiers, a human endeavour where 'clean' means purity of effort and 'winning' isn't everything, but doing it right is. That's why Lance Armstrong's story of drugs and deceit, which won him seven titles of the Tour de France - arguably the most gruelling sporting competition on the planet - has few nods and fewer conciliatory words.

The most-celebrated cancer survivor is a culpable champion. The 41-year-old endurance cyclist's admission of guilt - cheating, lying and bullying, all that under a dark cloud of performance-enhancing drugs - came in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, which everybody heard, but few listened to.

Delhi-based mind coach Radhika Singh Kawlra, who guided sharpshooter Abhinav Bindra to the Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008, feels "there is a quality of pure conscience" in sport that prevails despite match-fixing, drugs and several other forms of abuse that has rocked its foundations in recent times.

"People understand the mammoth effort involved in being an international athlete, the gives are huge. And it is appreciated, " she said, "A shooter doesn't just turn up at the Olympics, fire a few rounds and claim gold. What goes before the gold medal falls around one's neck, the sweat and tears, fears and frustrations. Spectators get it. And even though it is difficult to replicate that effort, we revere and idolize them in markedly different fashion than we do movie stars, politicians or business moguls. "
Kawlra pointed out that Armstrong's story fitted in beautifully with the way we view modern sport - the superhero who overcame cancer, who went on to break records and establish a whole new order. She said: "We were seeing in real life what movies portrayed in desperate, dramatic overtones. We wanted as much to believe in the Lance Armstrong story as he wanted us to believe it. "

Lying or cheating or bullying which Armstrong was accused of, however, is an everyday occurrence: in homes and hospitals, corporate corridors and coffee shops. Armstrong turned to a dictionary to understand the meaning of the word cheat, but surely society wouldn't have to go that far. The spouse in an extramarital affair, the boss who claims his junior's work as his own, the associate who bullies a subordinate, the child who signs his own poor report card. If the Biblical saying "let he who is without sin, cast the first stone" held weight in any era, it has got to be this one.

Sports psychologist Dr Chaithanya Sridhar, whose research paper for her doctorate studies was on 'emotional labour in sport', explained that lying was part of the human condition. She said, "We live in a culture where to tell a lie is acceptable. Most people would struggle to get by a day without a lie or two thrown in. "

Dr Sridhar, however, stressed that it wasn't lying or cheating or bullying that earned Armstrong society's ire: "It is the entirety of the exercise that leaves one speechless. It knocks your wheels off. This is not about crossing one or two lines, it's functioning beyond the boundary, in an orbit where no rules apply. Sadly that's not sport, sport as we know and understand it. "

Australian mental fitness guru Sandy Gordon noted in a recent report that some elite athletes had 'narcissistic, personality disordered' characteristics that led them to believe that their exalted status gave them right of way every time. They rarely considered the consequences, courting the illegal and outrageous until the plot blew up in their faces.

What then prompted Armstrong to come clean, after years of vehement denials? Nandan Kamath, a Harvard and Oxford educated sports lawyer, pointed to the overwhelming nature of evidence against the American. The USADA's investigation was detailed, thorough and complete. It included testimonies from teammates, friends and one-time confidantes. The Bangalore-based Kamath, who practised law in California, underlined the role of the Livestrong Foundation (formerly known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation) in the disgraced cyclist's decision to confess his use of performance enhancing drugs.

He said: "Living in the grey was neither an option for Armstrong nor did it help the Livestrong Foundation. He had little choice but to put up his hand and talk. "

Kamath, once an admirer of Armstrong, said of the American cyclist's television confession : "The admissions were as strategic as the silences - what he chose to tell, what he decided not to and what he denied. You know, nobody would be sitting half the world away from Austin, Texas discussing a cyclist or cycling if it wasn't for Lance Armstrong. That's the tragedy of it all. He had such a great impact on sport and society.

"Then to find out it was all based on a web of lies. This was not just a character flaw, it was a strategic scheme. He built an empire on lies. " Kamath went on to call Armstrong's chat with Oprah, 'a staged confession'. He said: "It was another strategic operation and if you ask me, an opportunity lost - an opportunity to be honest, modest and come across as truly sorry, an opportunity to show that even if he wasn't superhuman he was human and flawed like the rest of us. "

The route to redemption will prove a long uphill ride for Armstrong, far removed from fields and forests, idyllic country sides and the electric Champs-Elysees. And this time it won't be about finishing first.

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