Lance Armstrong

I feel great sympathy for Lance Armstrong today. You can say he’s a cheat; you can say whatever you like, but at the core of the issue is a man who has had everything, everything he has given his life to, stripped away.

As far as using drugs and winning is concerned, it makes me wonder how his competitors felt about it, because whether they finish first or last, all those athletes have made massive sacrifices. A lifestyle in which their time is ruthlessly ordered by training, rest and diet, which gives no opportunity for spontaneity and is absolutely intellectually arid always felt to me like a bleak waste of time which I’d never recover. It’s why some of those young AFL players get drunk, take drugs and crash cars; their lives have been taken over and they don’t know how to cope or what to do about it.

I interviewed the Canberran Kickboxer Ben Edwards not too long ago and in the course of our discussion, he gave me pellucid insight into my own professional sports career (or lack thereof). When I asked him why, he said, “I don’t care if I win or lose; I just love fighting. It feels like the right thing to do.”

Athletes like Ben are quite rare; many find themselves ‘trapped’ in their chosen sport to make lucrative use of talents that without which, they would be working in a 7-11. Without those talents, they would be decidedly ordinary – like the rest of us.

Recently, my former teammate and sparring partner, Alistair Overeem, was busted for ‘drug cheating’ (sparring partner is true, but I am flattering myself. There is footage of us sparring on the internet, and I was little more than an ambulant punching bag). The Nevada State Athletic Commission found him with a testosterone level of 14:1. To put this in perspective, the average man has a ratio of 1:1, while the NSAC is lenient and accepts a ratio of 4:1.

I remember the first time we worked together; he took hold of me in the grapple and popped my grip, so I was like an albatross with my great, long gangly arms sticking out over my head. He then changed his hold to impress my comparative physical inadequacy on me before folding me up, face down, marching me to the edge of the ring and pushing me out through the ropes, arse-first onto the floor. He had the kind of strength a parent has in relation to a young child, when they can just pick you up by a limb and hoist you through space. That strength is literally awesome – awe-inspiring.

I have been confronted by performance-enhancing drugs during the course of my career. You don’t have to go far to find them; they are floating around any serious gym. I don’t think they are especially harmful any more; science has refined them to the point where the side-effects are minimal. You can call it sentimental, but I was never comfortable with the idea; there was something Faustian about it.

Sport is about winning in the same way that the purpose of travel is arriving at point B. Anyone who has travelled across a great distance by train, especially through countries like Europe and India, will know what I mean. The experience of watching the world unfurl outside your window, through the Austrian Alps or across the red earth, green vegetation and brilliant blue sky of Rajasthan, amped to primary-colour intensity, tells a different story.

The truth about professional sport is that it isn’t about competing; it’s about training. You have to love training so much that you will do it for hours and hours every day, allowing it to reduce your existence, and your experience, to a fairly narrow bandwidth.

The hardest day of training I have ever had was at the Dutch kickboxing and MMA gym, Golden Glory. Michael Schiavello had approached Ernesto Hoost and Cor Hemmers in Japan at the K1, telling them I had just won a state kickboxing title, remaining undefeated and would probably benefit from a swim in the European shark tank. Cor responded by offering me a month’s trial and, if I survived, a spot on the team.

My first day there, I was completely star-struck. I was training in the world’s best gym with fighters I had been watching on bootleg Japanese videos for over a decade. They were gracious and welcoming, until the training started. Then, they absolutely wiped the floor with me. Errol Zimmerman dislocated my left floating rib on my first day of training. I remember the indignity and the pain; lying face-down, rib out, the circuit of synapses lit up with agony. Someone said, in heavily accented English, ‘Welcome to Holland’, and everybody laughed at me.

The hardest day came a week or so later. It was a big turn-out that day; possibly a special occasion, but I didn’t know because I couldn’t speak the language. Anyhow, it was well-known that dropping me took no more than a whack on the ribs. I kept it protected as best as I could with an elbow, but was dropped at the end of the second round. I crawled to the edge of the mat and propped myself against the wall, hoping I’d be left to watch. I got a couple of rounds off, and was then instructed to join in again. I was dropped again during the fifth round, then twice more after that to the point where all it took was a slap on the elbow.

An average day’s sparring was 5 rounds; that day, we did 12. And then, after that, we grappled for four. By the end of the striking rounds, my hands were starting to cramp up and spontaneously open, thereby letting all the punches slip through onto my battered face.

A funny thing happened. The best description I can think of comes from Iggy Pop, when he talks about the experience of performing:

“…When I’m in the grips of it, I don’t feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain, either physically or emotionally. Do you understand what I’m talking about? Have you ever, have you ever felt like that? When you just, when you just, you couldn’t feel anything, and you didn’t want to either. You know, like that?

The pain you experience, the pain which is so great it over-rides the voices in your head, is the portal to deliverance. The trick is that rather than resisting it, you go forward into it, like the proverbial white light. Once you enter, ‘the peace which passes understanding’ descends onto you. It’s not masochism, because if you liked the pain, gong into it wouldn’t work because there’s no aversion to be surmounted. Drugs can’t directly build your technique, and they can’t grant you this particular transcendence. And it isn’t restricted to place-getters; anyone who will fly into that burning eye will arrive there.

“And then, after all our journeying, we will arrive at the place we started and know it for the first time.”

People occasionally comment on the intensity of my training. But to be honest, nothing’s that hard if you’re not being repeatedly punched in the face. And no run, or circuit, or spin class can compare; any training session I can undertake is a relief after that day’s sparring. Nothing since has ever come even close to it.

Possibly my favorite quote from Steppenwolf is

For moments together my heart stood still between delight and sorrow to find how rich was the gallery of my life, and how thronged the soul of the wretched Steppenwolf with high eternal stars and constellations. My life had become weariness. It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of. Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.”

I could see every one of those little stars picked out, possibly because of blood pressure or impact, but they were there, just the same.  

Lance Armstrong being uncovered as a drug cheat conveys the irrelevance of his wins. Before being unmasked; he was a ‘freak’. Nature had given him gifts which meant ordinary people – like you and me – could never compete. Implicit in watching his achievements is a kind of ‘out’; a ‘normal’ or ‘average’ person could never hope to win, let alone compete, so it isn’t worth trying.

Training – and competing – are not about the laurels awarded. They are not about “the strut and trade of charms on the ivory stages.” It is, as the cliché claims, all about the journey.

Lance was wrong. It is all about the bike. And I hope he’s still riding – for his sake.

4 Responses to “Lance Armstrong”

  1. So. Readable….

  2. Julie Hock Says:

    I would be interesting to know just how well/talented Lance would have been in the competitions without the drugs – still brilliant on a bike? Determination and a tenacious personality driving the legs and mind is still a valuable asset.

  3. Good piece. I feel for Lance. I continue to admire him, and what he has achieved. It has become apparent that cycling is completely riddled with drugs. I can see how one could justify taking drugs by arguing that they are ‘levelling’ the playing field, not taking an advantage. In cycling, i’d say that is the reality of the situation. I am no athlete so I can’t comment on the ultimate purpose of being an athlete, nor the grand motivations, but I do know that in general, winning ~ the lure of success (and I have a feeling this is a particularly American quality), can strip away a person’s integrity faster than a Brazlilian’s bikini line.

  4. Jack Smith Says:

    ” … everything he has given his life to, stripped away”.

    Yep – As in any successful fraud who has been finally exposed, for those exposed early on have little to strip away. Ditto corrupt political leaders, crime bosses and financial industry fraudsters who deserve no admiriation

    As for ” … how his competitors felt about it …”, the real champions we will never know. They either gave up or just lost, refusing to dose on a regimen of performance drugs.

    “I don’t think they (drugs) are especially harmful … “. Takes time to tell. Lance Armstrong had cancer at an early age. Makes you wonder.

    “The truth about professional sport is that it isn’t about competing; it’s about training”. Most professional athletes are in it for the money.

    It would be better all round to take money out of sport by returning to amatuer participation. There is no health connection with professional sports.

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