Annalisa Quinn is a freelance writer for NPR Books.
Lance Armstrong, in his interview Thursday night with Oprah Winfrey in which he admitted to doping, understood the role that storytelling played in his fall: “You win the Tour de France seven times, you have a happy marriage, you have children. It’s just this mythic, perfect story. And it wasn’t true.”
Since the news of his admission of doping broke earlier this week, a remarkable number of news outlets have instead likened him to a different kind of mythic figure — a hero from Greek tragedy. CNN, ABC, MSNBC and Kojo Nnamdi have all used the comparison — and one eager and slightly confused piece in the Irish Examiner last month compared him to Achilles and Dr. Faustus all at once.
Let’s break this down. It’s true that Lance Armstrong was once powerful and is now disgraced. The rise to glory, the fatal twist and the long, dark fall into infamy — it’s all there.
But this journalistic tic of comparing fallen public figures to Greek tragedy is a lazy habit, intended to add an erudite flourish to a piece of writing and to give the story grandeur and scope. In fact, the idea of pride before a fall is not necessarily classical. The concept of “the fatal flaw” that causes a hero’s demise is based on an errant translation of Aristotle and is, frankly, very Catholic. It owes much to the “sin” that causes eternal banishment. Dr. Helene Foley, an expert on Greek tragedy at Columbia University, confirmed that it is “most probably a Christianization” and added that in Greek tragedy, “heroes do not fall because they lie or cheat.”
In Greek epic, at least, cheating and lying is not necessarily anti-heroic, and it certainly isn’t a cause for disgrace: Odysseus is the consummate cheater. He lies and tricks his way into Troy, and then lies and tricks his way home again. His epithet is “polumetis” — the man of many wiles.
The concept of “fairness” in competition is also very modern: In the world of Greek warfare, it was often a mark of success to acquire special advantages. If you are clever enough and brave enough to get special treatment, then you earned it. Achilles — the greatest warrior of all — doped, in a sense: In the Iliad, when he is too grieved by Patroclus’ death to eat, the gods feed him strengthening nectar and ambrosia before battle. He had performance-enhancing armor made for him by Hephaestus. Why? Because he was a magnificent warrior, the son of a goddess — and he deserved it.
Usually, when we talk about the “fatal flaw” — in modern usage, the thing that makes someone great and then destroys him — we mean pride or ambition, as with any number of fallen despots. Even Henry Kissinger called Richard Nixon’s demise a Greek tragedy, and adding, “Nixon was fulfilling his own nature.” Armstrong himself implicitly played into this narrative in the first part of a two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey broadcast on Thursday evening, calling his own (pre-fall) story “mythic” and speaking of his “flaw” as the “ruthless desire to win… at all costs.” Although, of course, it’s tempting to suggest that it wasn’t the desire, but the drugs that were his “fatal flaw” — the doping made him great; the doping destroyed him
In the Iliad,Achilles is given the choice between “nostos” (homecoming) and “kleos” (glory). He chooses to die, to never see his father again, and never grow old. Lance Armstrong made a similarly extreme choice: He ravaged his already cancer-ravaged body with drugs and blood transfusions. He risked (and lost) his reputation and career. He lied to everyone. The irony, of course, is that the steps Lance Armstrong took to secure his glory, when discovered, destroyed that glory forever.