Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Myth is the material; tragedy is what you make of it

The world of professional cycling saw two news stories of no small import this weekend. Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title (as well as all his professional results since then) for a positive blood test at the Tour, having been issued a "retroactive ban" from racing, which will expire this August. In other news, the federal prosecutors investigating Lance Armstrong's alleged doping announced quietly that they were dropping charges against Big Tex. (Why were the feds interested? Your US Postal Service sponsored his team, so government money was involved in supporting his racing.)

One case of the other shoe dropping (well, the other fuzzy red slipper dropping quietly as the UCI crawls back into bed with its sponsoring businesses, hoping that they didn't notice anything. Successfully, it seems; love is indeed blinding), one case of a ball dropping (there being no instant replay, we can argue for months over whether Armstrong's legal team should have been called for defensive interference or given credit for a blocked pass).

Such is the stuff that myths are made of. And epics and tragedies are made from. Red Kite Prayer had a somewhat pedestrian retelling of Lance Armstrong as Oedipus, but it aims too low--dragging the story of Oedipus down from myth, from the things a culture just knows and attempting to nail it to the facts (such as they might be [re]constructed) of the Armstrong case. No, the point is that Armstrong is already a myth; the facts---facts are for prosecutors when they have balls and institutional support and no political armtwisting to leave them the fuck alone; it's World Cancer Day, and cancer is a trump suit and…where was I? ... Armstrong is a myth. Contador is a myth. They're bigger than life, bigger than facts. Creations, created through words and culture (and money, but hey, this is modernity, we don't create our myths by annual animal sacrifice anymore).

Now take the myths and spin out tragedy and epic and, if you can, comedy.

Some enterprising Aeschylus can tell of Armstrong's cancer as preemptive punishment for the wrongs he's about to commit; the final act in the trilogy can redeem the character through "selfless"--thinly veiled penance--cancer work. Redemption and closure are options in drama, after all; this isn't real life--maybe like a sweet formulaic Shakespeare moment, the redemption can ring hollow (don't tell me that the Montagues and Capulets weren't slaughtering each other in the streets again before the star-crossed lovers' blood had dried). The broken family echoing across generations, that's just the icing so you know what kind of cupcake you're getting.

A Sophocles can treat Contador--the Spanish enemy, dark-skinned of course, with a stupid finish-line post-up and bad teeth, to boot--and force us to confront his humanity, make us all complicit in his crime and bring us through the muck to come out feeling smugly better on the other side of it (I'm sure if the New Yorker doesn't pick this up, then the Atlantic will; liberals love that shit).

This leaves Greg LeMond, Tyler Hamilton, and Floyd Landis for a Euripides, and a sophisticated (ah, sophistry, thy name is WADA) romp through philosophical oppositions: the clean and the dirty, the wet and the dry, the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the north and the south (of course; what's an American tragedy without north v. south?). LeMond, Hamilton, and Landis--each of them spinning, tumbling, but in orbit of Armstrong's gravity. LeMond crashing Lance's ("Cancer! I win. Cancer cancer cancer cancer.") press conference, melting into incoherence, every fiber of his being tied up in opposition to Armstrong; if LeMond is to be the greatest American cyclist, Armstrong can be nothing; if LeMond is clean Armstrong must be dirty and if Armstrong clean, then LeMond dirty--only narrative logic can explain LeMond. He has transcended humanity and entered myth.

Hamilton, equally twisted, and perhaps the most colorful of the bunch, bringing the brawl to an Armstrong bar (how West Side Story!), and opening a himself-themed restaurant (one gapes in adimaration of the heroic ego) whose centerpiece, no, whose omphalos, is its bathrooms--Armstrong bathrooms! Tread upon the symbol of my enemy while you defecate! Here is a master of the symbolic shambolic act.

In comparison to Hamilton, (how can you compete with a drinkin' man persona on the stage or screen or epic campfire telling?) Landis seems almost brutally pedestrian; he's the John Henry of the bunch, going up against not a mechanical steam engine but something more powerful, a story. Landis can hammer at facts all day and all night, in exquisite and heartbreaking detail. His soul slipping away is all subtext, of course; he's busy naming names and telling how it works.

This isn't the stuff for journalists anymore. Matt Rendell told the death of Marco Pantani, and for 320 pages, the story doesn't get out of the dirt; the facts are so… known. Cocaine, EPO, iron supplements, yeah, yeah, yeah, names dates times amounts.

The domineering Italian mother still convinced of his innocence; the girlfriends and "doctors" and psychologists and coaches, of whom Mama Pantani thought Marco innocent--now we're gtting somewhere, for they all tell stories, their stories all make sense only as stories, not facts. But the stories are better than the facts, and stories are what we make of myths, the things that we do to make the larger than life understandable while still larger than life. The Death of Marco Pantani, the Passion of Greg LeMond, the Twisted Saga of Tyler Hamilton, and the Ballad of Floyd Landis must be sung, not written.

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