Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: The Seven Deadly Sins

I have previously made my position on Lance Armstrong quite clear - I believe that he is a hero and I don't think particularly highly of the people like David Walsh who have spent so much time hounding poor Lance about his drug use. It is not that I believed that Lance never used performance enhancing drugs, it is just that I didn't think it was a really big deal since apparently practically all of the leading cyclists use such products. Therefore I probably would not have bought this book, but since I received it as a Christmas present I enjoyed reading it. I suppose it is always good to read materials which challenge your assumptions.

The sub-title of the book is "my pursuit of Lance Armstrong" and the cover photo shows a silhouette of a cyclist in racing gear. This makes it quite clear that the author thinks of himself as a hero. I was personally put off by the implication that his persistence and dedication in sticking doggedly to this story over the years is somehow comparable to the dedication required of a professional cyclist.

The first thing to note is that the book is very well written. David has been a journalist for many years and clearly knows how to lay out the narrative in a way that is quite gripping.  He really described the life of a sports journalist very well, even if I think he has an overly high opinion of the importance of his profession.

While I previously thought of David as a virulent anti-drug campaigner, it is clear from the story that he started out quite ambivalent on the topic and only developed these strong opinions after observing the effect that drug use was having on professional cycling. As I read the book, I also found myself constantly re-evaluating my own attitude towards drug use in sport.

However, while the author eventually becomes convinced that this is clear choice between right and wrong. He thinks that drug abuse in sport is a terrible cancer which must be fought at all costs, but I still think that there is a lot of moral ambiguity in this story. For example, David is gushing in his praise for Betty Andreu and the role that she played in bringing down Lance Armstrong - but I think the morality of her actions is very questionable.

The quick summary of her story is that she and her then fiancĂ© Frankie Andreu (who was a professional cyclist) were visiting Lance Armstrong in hospital while Lance was undergoing treatment for cancer. She claims that she overheard Lance tell doctors about his use of performance enhancing drugs (in answer to the standard question "what other medication are you on"). Betty subsequently repeated this story to David Walsh when he was researching a his book LA confidentiel. Lance still claims not to remember this conversation, but Betty is adamant that she heard it because it caused her to tackle her husband Frankie about his own use of performance enhancing drugs. I tend to believe Betty accurately recalls the conversation, but I have serious reservations about the morality of her repeating it. Even according to her version of events, the doctor asked her to leave the room before he interviewed Lance, but Lance said it was OK for her to stay because she was a friend whom he felt he could trust completely. Admittedly Lance was particularly vicious in his treatment of Betty once she publicly spoke out against him, but I can hardly blame his for being annoyed that she would betray his trust in this way.

As I read this book it became clear that Lance Armstrong is ruthless in pursuing his goals. I suppose that this should not be surprising since he could not have won so many bike races without a ruthless determination to train and win. However, it was scary to read how ruthless he was in dealing with public relations. He went to great lengths to discredit anyone whom he saw as an enemy - especially if that person was a former friend (e.g. Greg LeMond). No doubt psychologists would have a field day analysing how this attitude arose from the tough environment in which he was raised, but this is outside my field of expertise.

Overall I recommend this book to both Lance Armstrong fans and detractors. It is an entertaining read and also a book which makes you rethink your attitudes - what more could you expect in a book. Clearly it was a very good choice of Christmas present - thanks!

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