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 a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Getty
Show Hide image

Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit