It will surprise exactly no one to learn that few of us here at the Playlist ever sat at the jocks’ table in high school and only a very few of really count ourselves as major sports fans. However there are aspects of modern sporting culture that, whether or not we find ourselves transfixed by the swing of a bat or the call of a line judge, we can’t avoid becoming caught up in. With sportsmen and women become uber-celebrities off the pitch/field/court/lawn as well as on, there’s an unavoidable tendency to make them into mythic symbols of how talent and application can indeed bring everything our society defines as success: wealth, fame, respect and glory. But there’s just one problem when you take a sportsperson and make them a sporting hero: heroes fall.
None has fallen quite so far or quite so hard in the last few years as Lance Armstrong, once upon a time a walking, pedaling one-man inspiration machine, lauded for attaining the highest level in his sport both before and after beating cancer (from which his doctors had once said he had less than a 40% chance of recovering). Amstrong is now a symbol of duplicity, underhandedness and dishonesty, everything that is the opposite of our ideal of sportsmanship. Armstrong’s spectacular and precipitous plummet from grace is explored in this week’s release “The Armstrong Lie” (our review is here) by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, a film the director originally planned to be about Armstrong’s 2009 return from retirement to try for the Tour de France one more time. Instead, the allegations about doping that Armstrong had always strenuously denied or stonewalled, reached a tipping point, and he was exposed as a fraud and a cheat (and let’s be honest, kind of a prick by many who knew and worked with him).
What fascinates us as non-diehard-cycling fans about this whole story is not what it means for cycling, or even what it means for sport, but what it means for American popular culture and those of us who consume it. How do we cope and what do we do when the heroes we make disappoint us and turn out to have feet of clay and veins full of corticosteroids instead? It's not a new phenomenon either, so we've collected five other films based on real-life sporting controversies that, to a greater or lesser extent, might shed a little light on that question.
“Eight Men Out” (1988)
The pleasures of John Sayles’ loving recreation of the defining all-time baseball controversy, the notorious “Black Sox” scandal in which Chicago White Sox players conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, are manifold. Aside from the immaculate period detail, there’s the incredible cast, including David Strathairn, John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, John Mahoney, DB Sweeney, Christopher Lloyd and Sayles himself, lending his lugubrious presence to the role of sports journalist (and future blacklisted, Oscar-winning screenwriter) Ring Lardner, not to mention Michael Lerner, providing “Boardwalk Empire” fans with an alternate take on Arnold Rothstein. But really it’s a fascinating glimpse at a bygone era which on the one hand seems so much more innocent than now, with flat-capped ragamuffins (“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”) playing catch on stoops with their sporting heroes, but on the other hand rife with organized crime and the seaminess that lies just below the shiny surface of the american ideal of sportsmanship— a phenomenon that was in its relatively early days. Sayles’ movie is undoubtedly sympathetic toward the majority of the players involved, especially Bucky Weaver (Cusack) whose initial agreement to the deal evaporates during the first thrown game but who doesn’t rat on his teammates out of loyalty; and also “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Sweeney) who’s portrayed as a little more than an illiterate naif whose trusting nature and low IQ see him coerced into the tragic position of having the one thing he’s good at (and so very good at) taken away. In fact, the players are depicted as more or less exploited by the club’s owner, whose promised bonuses and pay rises never materialize, and who are disgruntled by the lack of respect they receive off the field despite clearly being the cash cows for so many lesser-talented men. It’s difficult, in these days of grotesquely inflated sports star salaries, not to see their gripes as justified no matter how disgraceful and disappointing their actions. And Sayles doesn’t lose sight of these personal stories amid the grandiosity of the scandal and the ensuing court case, neatly paralleling their individual falls from grace with the collective one. It’s one of the earliest examples in the sporting world of the truism that the more successful you become, the harder it is to stay pure, and that the loss of that purity is its own punishment. The choice to end it, therefore, on the relative high of the players’ acquittal on conspiracy changes before an epilogue in which we’re told the newly-minted Commissioner banned them all from baseball anyway, is the perfectly encapsulation of the film overall: ironic, regretful and bittersweet.
“Bigger, Faster, Stronger” (2008)
We’re not quite sure why it took us so long to catch up with this terrifically entertaining, and unexpectedly moving 2008 documentary about steroid culture in America, but we’re glad we finally got the chance. Director Christopher Bell (no relation, we believe, to our own beloved contributor of the same name) is both onscreen and off throughout this probing and wide ranging documentary, but part of the film’s strength is what an unusual presenter he is: the middle of three wrestling/weightlifting obsessed brothers all of whom at some point have used steroids (the other two still do), he is the short, pumped voice of reason, or at least of compassionate incomprehension, in a world of contradiction. The picture he presents aims to and largely succeeds in stripping away a great deal of the hysterical mythos that has sprung up around steroid use (including clips from a 30-minute TV issues drama which stars Ben Affleck as the tweaking, roid enraged teen), and from this non-judgmental position he follows seemingly every lead that occurs to him; from a clearly uncomfortable encounter with a father who’s convinced his son’s suicide is directly attributable to steroid use, to the man living with AIDS who credits steroids with keeping him alive for the past 25 years. Doctors, pundits, friends in the bodybuilding community, athletes like both Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis, and even a congressman central to the hearings about steroid use (who turns out to be rather a buffoon), are all interviewed for their perspectives, but amid all of this chatter Bell never loses sight of the human interest angle that his own family provides. And so the film emerges not just as an expose of the hypocrisy and media hype around the issue, but also a rather beautiful portrait of an unusual but ordinary, loving family and the lies they tell each other and themselves. Contending with both the personal and very public aspects of the steroid debate, the film goes further still, though, in shining a rare and thought-provoking light on the underlying reasons for the attraction of our great sportsmen to performance enhancing drugs, and the endless cycle of rising to greatness and falling from grace that seems to have started as soon as these drugs appeared. Ultimately, Bell relates it (quite fearlessly) to a fundamental contradiction about America, concluding: “there is a clash in America between doing the right thing and being the best.” And not just a clash, we’d call it an unresolvable impasse in a society that equates moral rectitude with winning at all costs. What happens, the film asks, when the only way to attain the American Dream of wholesomely earned, wholly deserved success, is by ‘cheating’?