Two programmes recently on TV featuring high-profile sporting personalities who have tried to come to terms with their secret histories. First up was Lance Armstrong, champion cyclist and seven-times winner of the gruelling Tour de France, who became an inspirational hero when he overcame cancer. His athletic performance and stamina in these races made some people wonder whether he was actually using some kind of banned substances; and when these people said in public what many riders thought in private, Armstrong unleashed the mighty forces of the law, and sued – successfully – for defamation of character. ‘How dare you accuse me of cheating!’ he snarled, ‘I have always tested clean for drugs’. His accusers, in the press and the public, were forced to hand over thousands of dollars and grovelling apologies.
However, a 2012 report for the US Anti-Doping Agency led to Armstrong being stripped of his magnificent seven T-de-F wins, and last week he recorded an interview with legendary TV host Oprah Winfrey. During this chat, he admitted using an elaborate arsenal of banned performance-enhancing techniques; but this did not count as ‘cheating’, since he didn’t do these things to obtain an unfair advantage, but simply to put himself at the same level as the other riders, all of whom were also using drugs. Good old Lance! If you’re not prepared to cheat, you don’t really want to win…
The other sporting confessional came from retired rugby player Gareth Thomas, who took part in an hour-long programme called ‘My Secret Past’ in which he revealed how he had concealed his homosexuality and joined in with the routine anti-gay banter of friends and teammates. We saw him discussing this history of deceit with a group of teenagers at school, with his parents and with his old coach.
All the time, he says, he was disgusted at being gay – and at having to live a lie. We even saw the church (an amazingly beautiful location) where he married his girlfriend in an attempt to become straight. But for much of the time, his life was constant torment and he considered suicide, deterred only by the thought of the misery that his parents would suffer.
The programme tried to explain how easy it is to lie and to join in with a prevailing culture of intolerance and abuse; Thomas may be the big strong chap par excellence, but you could still hear his voice falter with nerves when he revisited the changing room where he had a breakdown and finally had to admit that he had been deceiving his teammates for years.
In his interview with Oprah, Lance Armstrong comes across as being shrewd and manipulative, expressing just the right amount of contrition. Look at me, he seems to say; I’m so noble and honest. But I had you all fooled, didn’t I? He reminds me of those benefit claimants who pretend to be living in bleak, one-roomed poverty before posting Facebook pictures of themselves enjoying a fabulous foreign holiday. For these people, the temptation to flaunt their cunning is just too great.
Thomas’ behaviour is more subdued; he seems to be haunted by the hurt he has caused others, and is resigned to the idea that, while he cannot undo the past, he can try to persuade insecure gay youngsters to be more honest with themselves – and to make bullies aware of the damage their derision can cause.