Students of WW2 will probably be aware of an infamous Japanese experimental section of the Japanese Army called Unit 731, who conducted hideous, live, anaesthetic –free experiments of almost unimaginable cruelty on thousands of prisoners across occupied China. I’ve been reading about it today and to be honest the details and sheer sadism of the perpetrators was sickening.
Interestingly though a great many of those responsible, especially the ones at the top of the tree, largely got away scot-free when Japan surrendered. Why? Because they were seen by some powerful people as having something valuable to contribute to the post-war world. The Americans in particular had uses for a great deal of the knowledge and expertise built up by Unit 731 for their own biological weapons programmes.
Other experiments were undertaken under the most wantonly savage of conditions that did produce tangible medical benefits that were of some benefit to humanity-for example into treatment for frostbite. Naturally, that in no way justifies what happened.
I don’t know why but the whole moral dilemma that this throws up, i.e. what does one do with the benefits accrued from acts of evil, got me thinking about Lance Armstrong.
While of course, what the disgraced cyclist has done is in no way comparable to the depraved behaviour of Unit 731, there is an aspect of Armstrong’s fall from grace we can reflect on in intellectually somewhat similar terms.
There has been a great deal of hand-wringing over the fate of Armstrong’s cancer charity work in recent days, and many have been opining that all the philanthropic work he has supposedly done will be forgotten and the causes he attached himself to irreparably damaged. We’re told that Armstrong did a lot of good with his Livestrong Foundation, we are told, regardless of his sociopathic behaviour as a professional athlete.
The narrative has always been that Armstrong was/is a hero to people fighting cancer. His determination to overcome the disease and come back stronger was an inspiration to fellow-sufferers in their own fight against the disease. And maybe he was/is. Check out the ludicrous comments that appeared under this recent blog on the Livestrong site.
Apparently his crimes (and we are literally talking about criminality here) do not in any way detract from his cancer work. This narrative of cancer survivor-turned-best cyclist in the world was always based on a lie and the world now knows this. His confession on the Oprah Winfrey sofa was pretty unambiguous (and has left the legion of Armstrong defenders online, with the ludicrous and self-deluded argument that ‘he had never failed a test’, looking like twats).
There are a couple of reasons why I don’t think we can really separate out Lance Armstrong the cheat and Lance Armstrong the anti-cancer warrior.
Firstly, this appears to be the last argument that the Armstrong-brigade now has. For years we have had to endure the vilifying and slandering of his opponents on and off the bike as embittered, disturbed or avaricious, the reliance on the aforementioned fiction that he had never failed a test despite being tested hundreds of times, the constant referring back to his borderline-insane training regimen that supposedly gave him the crucial advantage over his rivals (most of whom were also doping, it should be noted, not that that really matters) that supposedly proved that everything he accomplished on the bike was humanly possible, the revolutionary approach to cycling we are told he brought to the sport (i.e. pedalling faster on a smaller ring is more efficient than pulling a massive gear as hard as one can, something he used to devastating effect in time trials), and in the final instance Armstrong’s passionate, and now clearly shameless, denials of wrongdoing.
Now we all know that everything just listed is rubbish, there is literally nothing else to say other than “actually he’s a good bloke, who cares that he cheated, look at what he did for charity”. It’s a mark of desperation.
Secondly, I think we need to start to re-think Armstrong’s motivations when it comes to his charity work. A picture has been painted of a chillingly cynical man in the last few months, one who would stop at nothing to win and build the Lance Armstrong brand. Happy-clappy, celebrity-endorsed feelgood charity work is the perfect cover and he could always cite the potential damage bad publicity would do to Livestrong to silence potential critics and whistleblowers, just like Jimmy Savile used his charity work to act with impunity in his personal life.
Indeed, a great example of him using his charity work to try to conceal the real motivations was when Armstrong returned to cycling in 2009 he cited as his main reason his desire to increase the profile of his charity work, when it was transparently a massive ego trip to try and win the Tour again.
Put simply, his charity work is simply a shield he has used and I think will continue to use entirely cynically. He doesn’t really care about cancer and if he does it is only in so far as it being a part of a backstory he can exploit for his own ends.
And on the basis of what we’ve seen of his character in the last few years, I would be fascinated to hear anyone try and take issue with that assertion.
It is also the height of delusion to think that the future of cancer support and research really depends on a man who has done little else other than pedal furiously for many years.