The response to Lance Armstrong's admissions is ghoulish

If Americans are so invested in their sporting heroes that they are distraught when they turn out to be merely human then that's the nation's sickness, not just Armstrong's.

Last night more than three million people gazed at a man's eyes, waiting greedily to be the first to spot a tear. When he finally did break down, in describing the pain of admitting his crimes to his oldest son, the public reaction to his grief was glee.

Yes, Lance Armstrong lied. Worse, he also embarked upon bitter and unfounded lawsuits to maintain his lies. He was a bully to those around him, a hubristically unpleasant and arrogant man, and that is not to be defended: bullying is heinous. But – and this is the crux of the issue – we don't go after footballers with rape convictions with as much bile as we reserved for this man.

The Guardian's first words in the story covering last night's interview were therefore, "Lance Armstrong cried." The New York Times opened on "Amid tears." The New York Post did similar. So did ABC News. And Fox, E! Weekly. And the Daily Mirror. What is this obsession with tears? We saw it first in Britain after Princess Diana died – the national outpouring of grief that led to anger at those who were actually mourning at their failure to show weakness. What catharsis is it for the mob to see the strong break down and cry? What vindication does it represent?

Last night the words "public betrayal" was being thrown around, as if Armstrong had sold the nation out to its enemies instead of simply admitting to cheating. If I was a non-doping cyclist, I said on Twitter last night, then I would have been rightfully cross. But it looks as if those were pretty few and far between in Armstrong's era anyway.

I'll admit it: Armstrong was never my hero. I don't cry at sports games. Nor would I feel the victim of treason if, say, Bradley Wiggins or Jessica Ennis's performances in summer – which I enjoyed immensely – turned out to be spurious;  they would have been, to borrow a teachers' cliché, only letting themselves down. (I should point out that there is absolutely no reason to believe this might be the case.)

Yes, Armstrong started a charity by selling a narrative of sporting prowess that turned out not to be genuine. But he did genuinely overcome cancer to get there; moreover, Livestrong does and always did good work. What's honestly better – to tell the truth, and not save other lives, or lie to start a successful charity?

Moreover, there is something else at play than mere egotism. Sport is an industry in the US that so depends on such 'heroes' to sell products to the rest of us that they will turn a blind eye to almost anything, from doping to sexual violence unless it risks tarnishing their image – and pay them astronomical amounts of money to do so. Armstrong is set to lose more than $75m dollars in sponsorship money.

America, a young nation, idolises its heroes more much more than we British do. We look at ours with a sort of nostalgic fondness; just look at Michael Sheen's portrayal of Brian Clough, or Gary Lineker's self-deprecating advertising work for Walkers' crisps. We like a bit of weakness in our heroes; a touch of the bottle, maybe; a spot of darkness. America, in contrast, is the nation that invented the Hall of Fame: here, sporting heroes are golden calves to be worshipped unconditionally. That's why, when Armstrong or Tiger Woods turn out to be merely human, it hits fans so brutally, as a personal betrayal.

Armstrong has a tremendously long way to fall. But if Americans are so invested in their sporting heroes that they are distraught when they turn out to be merely human – egotistic, fame-hungry, and all the rest of it – then that's the nation's sickness, not just Armstrong's.

A man watches Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey in a bar in downtown Los Angeles. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.