I think about Lance Armstrong a lot.
It all began with a chance television viewing of the Tour de France set to the mellifluous tones of broadcasters Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen during one of the many dog days of a Los Angeles summer. Yes, there were cyclists on the screen and I vaguely wondered about the Byzantine scoring system, but mostly I fixated on the chateaus, charming agricultural tableaus, and the sunflowers. How distant are those innocent times? If I tell you that I have a secret-cycling-only twitter account and that the USADA Reasoned Decision is on my iPad, you might begin to understand. The fact is that I’ve reached the point where I can conduct a reasonably intelligent conversation about hematocrit levels, Katusha’s current team travails, and where the convoluted and contentious power struggle among the alphabet soup organizations UCI, IOC, WADA, USADA, and CCN, is headed.
Why am I so fascinated by Lance’s story in particular? For one thing, my inner English major recognizes Lance as an astonishing contemporary embodiment of the archetypal fallen hero of literature. His story is unparalleled in modern celebrity culture for the sheer force of its dramatic arc. He is Richard III, Achilles, and Raskolnikov all rolled into one. But he also touches our lives as a poignant avatar of everyman. We have all seen Livestrong wristbands on loved ones during dark periods of our lives. We have all made unfortunate choices that fill us with regret. We have all dreamed of achieving goals that exceed our innate gifts and capabilities.
My not-so-inner student of business is fascinated by Lance for different reasons. He managed to conflate cancer awareness and record-breaking sports accomplishment in a personal brand that was very close to unassailable, but for the dogged persistence of a few brave individuals. The business ethics and strategy case studies about Lance and Nike, Oakley, Trek, Discovery Channel, Anheuser-Busch, 24 Hour Fitness, Honey Stinger, and Tailwind Sports—are no doubt being hastily cobbled together as we speak. And if they’re not, they should be—Nike’s inexcusably slow response to the USADA decision, Trek’s choice to mothball Greg LeMond’s line of bikes, and the disappointing truth about Livestrong—will make for lively MBA roundtables for years to come. Oprah (Oprah!), who has a net worth of $1.4B according to Forbes, freely acknowledges that Thursday’s interview is the most important of her career and hopes that it will help all of us find our way to her struggling OWN channel and its companion website.
Another fascinating business phenomenon to consider is that the Twitter Greek chorus of impassioned cycling fans, journalists, and pros is widely acknowledged to have directly impacted the public understanding of the investigation. Be sure to check out the Twitter stylings of @TheRaceRadio @UCI_Overlord @FestinaGirl @nyvelocity @vaughters @DavidWalshST @JulietMacur @velonews @dwouri @PaulKimmage @cyclingnewsfeed and @friebos for some lively analysis of #Doprah. This group has already moved on to the next piece of the puzzle: following the money trail and contemplating which heads will roll after the broadcast. Lance is old news.
So what does all of this have to do with publishing? Well, for one thing, while Lance’s brutal campaign against his detractors succeeded for many long years, persistent writers can be credited with the early truthtelling. Journalist authors Paul Kimmage and David Walsh fought the good fight at great risk to their careers and reputations. And the award-winning The Secret Race by Daniel Coyle and Tyler Hamilton gets my vote for the 2012 nonfiction page-turner of the year.
Of course, Lance’s books—whether he is a hero, a villain, or something in between— also represent fairly big business for the publishing world and very big business by the standards of our little press. Lance’s co-author, Sally Jenkins, was roundly ridiculed as a pandering apologist, but, let’s face it—she knows that the story of Lance’s fall from grace may well outsell the earlier books, which appeared on multiple bestseller lists, including Neilsen BookScan, The New York Times, and Amazon. The Wall Street Journal mentioned this week that Lance started thinking about “producing a book” last October. October? Lance is better than that.
And finally, there’s the existential question. Does Lance’s latest story deserve to be told and would Prospect Park Books, given the opportunity, publish it? We discussed this question, quite seriously, in the office this week. The answer? Hell, yeah. Whether Lance deserves the redemption he seeks is a separate issue and something for his readers (and the courts) to decide. But the uniquely exceptional story of an individual who is both hero and everyman is one that we could never reject.
Oh, and after you’ve finished reading all of the links I’ve provided, give me a call and let’s discuss hematocrit levels. Colleen and Jen have heard just about enough.
Photo source: Reddit