Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lance Armstrong: A Metaphor for Modern Sport

What? Something on my nose?
Lance Armstrong's capitulation to USADA and the subsequent reaction of various factions says much about not just cycling, but about modern sports. Armstrong's move was calculated and measured, each statement carefully managed, each appearance (including yesterday's mountain bike ride) choreographed and staged.  Yesterday's messaging was all about the future - "It Will Be Great" was the theme of yesterday's press event - about charity work and get fit programmes, and the Livestrong foundation.  Livestrong has it's own lobbying firm. Several papers dutifully repeated the seeded message that donations to the Livestrong foundation were up by orders of magnitude on Friday. 

We have to ask ourselves why we engage in sport at all?  Armstrong's brand has been developed with great enthusiasm and energy by PR consultants, cycling authorities, and so called sports journalists celebrating the extraordinary story of his comeback from cancer.  It appears now beyond question that Armstrong doped, the litany of evidence is damning.  So why did he dope?  Well, for money, fame, power.  He drove himself to ever greater achievement - through fair means or foul - in order to gain that success.  But the money, fame and power attach to that success because that success creates an ideal, an objective, a hero.  People aspire towards his achievement, and that aspiration can be monetized through endorsements, advertising commercial association.  The monetization vehicle is in TV rights, advertising, and brand endorsements.

The cycling organising body - the UCI - was wedded to Lance Armstrong in much the same way as the PGA has been wedded to Tiger Woods.  Not only was Armstrong a rock star in cycling terms, he was American; and as half of all global advertising dollars are spent in America, that was huge for them.  Armstrong's relationship with the UCI was so tight that he even made donations to them while he was cycling.  The whole ecosystem then became wrapped up in Armstrong's brand, he became bigger than the sport.  Today, even though he has been stripped of his tour titles (though the UCI and the Court of Arbitration for Sport may have something to say about that yet) there remains extraordinary support for Armstrong, and public vitriol appears to be reserved for USADA instead.  The honor and the glory don't matter, it seems, so long as the brand remains strong.  Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman remains bullish.  The Livestrong brand, now fifteen years old, persists.

If we were in any doubt about the connection between Armstrong's ambition and his personal quest for wealth and power, let's bear in mind that Livestrong is a trade mark of the Lance Armstrong foundation, and the money managed within the foundation - the LIVESTRONG Portfolios - were previously called the My Retirement Portfolios.  Livestrong is about making Lance Armstrong fantastically wealthy.

All modern professional sport is similarly geared.  Organising bodies, clubs, affiliates, sponsors, and broadcasters and journalists occupy ecosystems of glory, designed to hype the sport, to glorify the athletes, to exalt the virtues of the sport superstars.  They are in the business of creating aspirational figures, of finding stories, of elevating mere mortals to the position of not mere role models, but unattainable targets.  These are people who we can never be, but who we can admire and respect.  But because the driving force behind all of this is commercial, because all of this is about the pursuit of commercial interests, any weakness, any semblance of humanity is airbrushed from the ideal.  Superstars don't fail, they compete.  They don't lose, they strive.  And even when they do suffer dramatic events that compromise their brand, everything is managed.  And when their careers are over, when their physical capacity begins to trail off, when they can no longer serve as an aspirational figure, they are cast aside.  It's not about effort, fitness, community or fun.  It's about wealth, power and success.  We admire them not because they are atheltic, but because they are successful.

Lance Armstrong could well survive this current spat.  USADA is not UCI, and UCI's Pat McQuaid has been a long standing supporter of Lance Armstrong - and Armstrong of McQuaid.  Indeed, Floyd Landis has alleged that UCI took a bribe from Armstrong to cover up a failed test in 2001.  Bungling and all as he might be, McQuaid is probably Armstrong's last hope.  It's extremely unlikely Armstrong will turn canary and tell all, and so presuming he persists in his denials, turning the rest of the cycling world against USADA by getting UCI publicly on-side could save him.  And what will he have saved?  His brand, his power, and his fortune.  Drug addled cycling will continue.  And more and more kids will think they have to dope in order to be successful, and not see anything wrong with it.  It's getting caught is what you have to avoid.

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