First published in guardian.co.uk on 23 January 2013
This simple but effective sculpture by Picasso – a bicycle seat and handlebars welded together to form a bull’s head – prompted a cartoon on Lance Armstrong, at the time of his “confession” on Oprah. I usually try to avoid something that could be read as an attack on a person, it’s not really my bag, but Lance Armstrong is such a weird case. The breathtaking chutzpah of the guy, virtually daring the world to call him out – “Go on world, just try it!” This may sound ludicrous but hear me out – I think Lance Armstrong may be a psychopath. I recently read a book called Zero Degrees of Empathy, by Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert in autism and developmental psychology (and, bizarrely, the cousin of Sacha, a.k.a. Borat). It’s about people who have no empathy, who treat others as if they were mere objects. He speculates that there are 4 types of people who have no empathy for other people: Borderline Personality, Narcissist, Autistic and the Psychopath,. His definition of Psychopath seems to fit Lance. In 1993, after the 21 year old Lance had just become world champion, his Mum Linda went to visit Greg LeMond, the 3 time American Tour De France winner, for advice as to how to handle fame and fortune. I quote (from this):
They sat on the porch for a while and then moved inside to the kitchen. Linda had something else on her mind: “How do I make him less of an asshole. He doesn’t care about anyone.”
“Well,” LeMond replied. “I can’t help you there.”
Baron-Cohen says that a psychopath has a total preoccupation with oneself and (this distinguishes the psychopath from his other personality types) possesses a willingness to do “whatever it takes” to satisfy his desires. Some of the qualities that a psychopath shows are (among others) superficial charm; a lack of anxiety or guilt; egocentricity and a lack of insight into the impact of their behaviour.
I also think that his anti-cancer work with his Livestrong charity (as obviously worthwhile as it is) provided him with the perfect cover. If you attacked Lance Armstrong you were somehow attacking this worthy cause. See how Lance deliberately conflates the 2 in this bit of footage. In England we have just had the Jimmy Saville episode, where a TV celebrity whose high-profile work for children’s charities provided him with a moral cover for decades of child abuse. Nobody wanted to accuse a man who did such good deeds.
Anyway, comedy gold.
Oh, the level playing field argument – “everyone was doing it so why shouldn’t I?” Well, besides Lance being the industrial scale pace-setter for doping (everyone else was trying to catch up with him), why don’t we have insider trading for all, just to make the stock markets fairer? Why don’t we all just aim for the lowest moral denominator in every field, just so we’re all equal?