Armstrong’s defenders: parallels with religious fervor

Unless you’ve been chained in a basement somewhere or in the throes of a drunken blackout, by now you’re aware that Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner and the most decorated cyclist in history, has been banned for life from the sport by the U.S. Anti-Doping Association (USADA) as a consequence of the case the agency has been building against him for months, if not years. Armstrong is charged not only with cheating via chemical enhancement, but also with trafficking, possessing, and administering banned substances. USADA also stripped him of all of his TdF titles, though the body lacks the ultimate authority to do so — that will fall to the International Cycling Federation (UCI). For any one of a thousand similar breakings of the story on Thursday afternoon, try this one in the NY Times.

Armstrong, who won his seven Tours consecutively between 1999 and 2005 and is retired from cycling but remains active in triathon and marathon as he approaches his 41st birthday next month, has been dogged by doping rumors since early in his post-testicular cancer career for years. This is partly a consequence of cycling being perhaps the dirtiest sport on earth not involving lifts and curls, but also a result of an increasingly noisy clamor directed at him personally by those close to him, including former teammate Floyd Landis, who became the first not-Armstrong TdF champ in eight years in 2006 only to be relieved of his title thanks to a positive testosterone test. Landis famously went into exquisite detail about not only Armstrong’s doping schemes but also his own and that of some of their U.S. Postal Service teammates. Some dismissed Landis’ comments wholesale on the basis of his being a drug cheat who maintained his innocence for several years after he was caught and therefore an untrustworthy source. Others, myself among them, took him at his word precisely because he is a drug cheat and was not only perfectly stationed to know the real deal, but was also in a position of having nothing to lose by coming clean, other than, one expects, the respect of his former teammates, still ensconced, as Landis himself had once been, in a mutual code of silence and complicity.

Anyway, the screws finally tightened to the point at which Armstrong finally cried “no mas” to the USADA several days after an Austin judge threw out Armstrong’s lawsuit against the organization. He issued a statement explaining his decision to throw in the towel; USADA issued one of its own, and Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune summarized nicely what Armstrong’s refusal to defend himself further means (free registration required for the last one).

Appearances are rarely everything, but it seems inescapable that Armstrong’s decision is a tacit if not outright admission of guilt. He appears keenly aware that the USADA has incontrovertible evidence against him, and rather than face an expensive battle that he was guaranteed to lose, would bloody various others, and could result in criminal charges, he cut his losses. If the dope-chasers were for some reason bluffing, Armstrong would be well aware of the fact and would have done what he’s always done best — fight like the rare competitor he is. In the end, if Lance were in fact clean, he would not have abandoned the war. But he did.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Casual fans who know him only as a cancer survivor, TdF winner a zillion times over, and the founder and face of the LIVESTRONG Foundation do not, in the main, even care that he was juicing; to the everyday citizen, performance-enhancing drug use is part and parcel of professional sports, and Armstrong seems far less churlish than, say, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. But there is a sizable faction of endurance-sports fans who are stoically unmoved by all of these proceedings, and maintain that Armstrong is innocent and always will be. Most of them start with the incorrect assertion that Armstrong never failed a drug test (the Tribune column debunks this myth), but when they are set straight on that point, they move onto increasingly ramshackle conspiracy theories and the like.

Which brings me to my main point. I’ve in the past tackled the phenomenon of religious denialism — mostly Christian creationism — and given some verbiage to its psychological underpinnings as I see and understand them. But what I’ve seen on the Web in the past few days hammers home the point that while the illogical, immalleable aspects of religious fundamentalism represent the most prominent example of a specific array of cognitive deficits, they are by no means unique.

I see the categorical Armstrong defenders as a religious epiphenomenon. Instead of Jesus or God, you have Lance. Instead of hardcore Christians, you have fundamentalist Lancers. Rather than villains like Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins, you have the USADA and investigative journalists. In place of Pharisees are all of Armstrong’s former teammates and associates who are willing to serve up the dirt on him. And just as with committed Bible fans, fundamentalists Lancers are entirely unmoved by any evidence countering their belief system, however formidable, and simply chalk up the presentation of this evidence to lying and hatred on the part of the presenters. And as you say, there are plenty of highly intelligent Lancers who you’d think would know better.

The parallels really are remarkably hi-fidelity.

I’m leaving a lot out of this rapidly mushrooming story, but I’ll leave it to other sources to address them in days to come. I don’t think there are any real mysteries here.

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