Cancer story built a fake ideal of fighting spirit

Cancer story built a fake ideal of fighting spirit

TONY Greig, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Geoff McClure, Simon Townley. Some of these names will be familiar, some less so. They have in common long careers in sporting media - and decency - and that they were taken in the recent past, and too soon, by cancer.

''Taken'' seems inadequate, a euphemism. But to my mind, it is better than to say that they lost their battles, with the implication that somehow they were not quite up to the task.

Is Test cricketer Simon O'Donnell, who was found to have non-Hodgkins lymphoma at 24 and is still with us a quarter of a century later, more of a fighter than Cronulla Sharks rugby league player Jon Mannah, who died on Friday of Hodgkins lymphoma, aged 23? Did one lose and one win?

Having had a brush with the same cancer as Lance Armstrong's at the same age, I have a distant, but viscerally strong, outlook on these matters. And I don't for a moment accept the win/lose dichotomy. I think that in all these instances the disease ran its course, proving in some instances to be susceptible to a range of treatments and in others not.

Flawed character ... Lance Armstrong opens up to Oprah Winfrey.

Flawed character ... Lance Armstrong opens up to Oprah Winfrey.

Photo: Reuters

The essence of the Armstrong story is that after recovering from testicular cancer at 25, he gathered himself up to win seven Tour de France titles. By sheer, uncompromising strength of mind, he beat cancer, then beat the Lycra pants off everyone else on the bike.

In the Oprah interview on Friday, he broached the idea that it was the fighting spirit he developed to combat cancer that drove him on the bike. These themes were combined in the Livestrong Foundation.

The foundation was, and is, real enough, but the rationale for it has now been proved to be a chimera. Good on Armstrong for outliving testicular cancer. But 95 per cent of victims of that cancer do. As for the bike races, as we now know, they were at least as much about strength of concoction as strength of mind. The common theme, bizarrely enough, was the power of drugs.

Peversely, now that Armstrong has come clean, some lasting good might ensue. Through Livestrong, Armstrong putatively inspired thousands of cancer sufferers. Those who survived and the families and friends of those who did not now know that this seeming force for good was only ever a placebo.

They all did that they could - medically, mentally, spiritually - and in some instances it worked, and in some it did not. The survivors might even choose to think that they won - that is their right - but the loved ones of those who died need not think that they lost, and certainly not that they somehow failed to live up to the Armstrong ideal, because it was a fake anyway.

Yes, we can be grateful for the good that Livestrong did and does, but now, more surely than ever, it can be seen as incidental. Nothing can mitigate this central truth about the Armstrong story.

Great sportsmen and sportswomen ask us to take them on trust. The question is only ever implicit, which makes for a sometimes fraught relationship; Shane Warne, for instance, probably feels that he was held to a promise of virtue that he never made, and Tiger Woods to a pledge that was made for him. Only Roger Federer seems to keep an impossible faith.

Armstrong is different. He did not just ask to be taken on trust; he demanded, loudly, menacingly, shrilly, repeatedly. He bullied others into preserving that trust. He hurt them, and says that only now does he realise how much.

He lied for that trust, in sworn testimony, on the winner's podum at the Tour de France, in dozens of depositions. He's lying still; he says that until recently he did not understand the scale of his wrongs, which is impossible to credit.

He sued for that trust, so many times that he admitted to Oprah he could not count them. On the day he gave up the fight against the US Anti-Doping Agency, through his lawyer he threatened anyone who would interpret that as an admission of guilt.


Armstrong had never honoured that trust, and had profited handsomely from the brazen breach of it. Even when it was all over, he flaunted his betrayal by tweeting a photo of himself reclining before his seven yellow jerseys, and would have concealed it forever if he could. To the end he wanted to browbeat us to trust him.

It is this brazen cold-bloodedness, despite the EPO, that sets Armstrong apart from other sporting frauds. When he brought himself to apologise to staff at Livestrong last week, reportedly it was not for causing them to live his lie, but for media intrusion! Whatever he hoped to achieve by turning upon Oprah he won't get it this way. For once, he has miscalculated.

Greg Baum

Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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