By Ed Harris
Ed Harris is a technology entrepreneur and author who lives in Bellevue. His most recent book is “Fifty Shades of Schwarz,” and his next work, “Let’s Pretend We’re Christians and Play in the Snow,” is due out later this summer.
In 2005, I attended a cancer fundraising breakfast in Seattle that featured Lance Armstrong as the marquee attraction. Armstrong was at that point at the absolute height of his fame. The event, in the main ballroom of the Seattle Sheraton, was one of those see-or-be-seen types of gatherings for people who regard themselves as movers and shakers in Seattle business. I paid $250 for a plate of scrambled eggs and toast, the right to bask in the radiance of one of the world’s most recognized athletes and to mingle with the right people.
Shortly before the event, The Seattle Times reported that Armstrong was being paid an appearance fee, although the amount was not disclosed. I recall being disturbed by this. It is said of storytelling that character should be gradually revealed. Why, I wondered, did a man who was one of the highest earners in sports need the extra cash? And, in particular, why would he be looking to take money from a charity raising funds for a cause – cancer – that his fame as an athlete was so inextricably wrapped up in?
I recall being underwhelmed by Armstrong’s speech. I don’t know if the awareness of his speaking fee prejudiced me, but I thought I saw in him flashes of the egotism and arrogance that even at that early date were swirling around his name and reputation. That evening, I told my wife that I was unimpressed by the entire Lance Armstrong fame machine.
A few years later, as Armstrong’s house-of-cards was in the early stages of collapse, I spent an afternoon with a group of men, the Dancing Dads act for the spring recital at the dance studio where our kids took classes. We congregated in the parking lot, with an informal barbecue to pass time between shows. Armstrong’s name came up, and one dad vigorously defended him, repeating his assertions that no athlete had ever been subjected to as many drug tests and that his accusers were liars and cheats. Even if that’s true, I thought, it’s not quite as convincing as saying “I never took a banned substance,” a remark that Armstrong had yet to utter (and never did).
Most of Armstrong’s statements were literally accurate – indeed, no athlete ever passed as many drug tests – but they were fundamentally dishonest, because if you know how to dope yourself and still evade detection, then “passing the test” is not quite the achievement it was being touted as. Plenty of people who cheat pass tests. In fact, you might say that’s the ultimate lure of dishonesty: it produces great results, as long as you don’t get caught.
Armstrong’s fall unfolded like a cartoon in which someone goes over a cliff but stays suspended in mid-air until they look down, realize they have no ground underneath them, and then plummet with a sudden whoosh. Just like that, in the space of a few days, the entire Lance Armstrong edifice was dismantled, and the fame and admiration transformed into a mix of outrage and disgust. Today, there must be a lot of yellow wrist bands floating around in America’s dresser drawers.
At the end, as the intense bullying tactics that Armstrong had used against his critics came to light, the ultimate narrative arc that all creative writers strive for, the full revealing of character, had been achieved. It is said that one of the hallmarks of a great story is an ending that is both surprising and inevitable. In Armstrong’s case, life proved to be as emotionally moving as great fiction. The denials, the harsh attacks against accusers, the revelation that he informed doctors as far back as 1996 that he had taken the banned substance EPO, the threats of retaliation against those who testified against him, all served to reinforce the essence of the character of a man the public was now seeing in a new light. And getting paid in 2005 to speak at a cancer fundraiser suddenly became just one piece of a cohesive narrative.
Given the times we live in, doping scandals, like celebrity happenings, seem to be a continuous part of the news cycle. With the recently announced 65-game suspension of former National League MVP Ryan Braun – cheater, denier and finally confessor – we appear to be perhaps only days away from Major League Baseball finally going public regarding Alex Rodriguez’s involvement in the Biogenesis investigation. While every case involving banned PEDs is different, like Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families, in the end they are all alike. Should A-Rod go down, the fall is likely to be as swift and complete as Lance Armstrong’s. If this were a movie, we’d be in the last five minutes. Personally, I’m expecting an ending to the A-Rod saga that is both surprising and inevitable.
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