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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.