Monday, October 20, 2014

Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell

We probably should have known better. When something is too good to be true… I can't help it; I feel like we need to take some of the blame for the failures of Lance Armstrong. We wanted to believe in this level of sports competence…every year…for seven years…by a man who would be considered old in any other sport…and by a cancer survivor.

What surprised me about the information I learned here is Lance’s early home life. His mother never finished high school and was pregnant with Lance at sixteen when her father threw her out. Lance was an exceptional and driven athlete as an early teen, but when he wanted to compete in triathlons with strict age requirements that precluded his participation, his mother modified his birth certificate. So he learned early that the rules did not really apply to him. And that grasping behavior? When enough is never enough? I guess we know where that came from.

I didn't like reading this book one little bit, not only because the writing is more breathless and sensational than it needed to be. The documents collected tell the story of a man who is immensely unappealing and manipulative and the worst sort of role model. We also learn something about the other folks involved in the sport: the teammates, the spouses, the officials, the medical staffs, the press. It was big business, and their business was to sell a product. I may have been a dupe, but I don’t believe for a second all those other folks were.

Even when a former teammate came out with allegations, dates, remembrances of drug doping during races, it was still tricky to prove. One cannot help but feel just a little betrayed by all the folks that agreed to go along with this. They did it because “everyone else did.” Yes, the Tour de France is a hard race. And the world can be a tough place. At least they got to wear spandex in their work rather than body armor.

O’Connell and Albergotti corral a huge amount of material for this exposé. A few less details and a little more reflection would have gone down better with this reader. Journalists don't have a responsibility to tell us what to think, I suppose, but biographers can help us place Lance’s megalomania in perspective. A character of this dimension is unusual and we the public could use a little help in dealing with the details of someone else's life choices, given his great talents. Is the lesson to strive, but not that much? Is celebrity addicting? Armstrong was not just an ordinary guy with a dirty little secret. This misses the size of his delusion, and ours. Forget Lance for a moment. In a sense, his future has already been written. What are our lessons? Did we do this?

I listened to the Penguin Audio of this book, read by Santino Fontana. Fontana read well, though he is perhaps too gleeful in sections of heart-rending discovery. I supplemented listening with the text by Gotham Books, an appropriately-named publisher for a manuscript depicting characters with such outsized lives.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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