The ad you see here is the new Lance Armstrong spot for Nike, which would be merely standard-issue, inspiromatic marketing schlock if it didn't come so creepily close to suggesting that to criticize Lance now is to somehow enable cancer.
Maybe this is an ungenerous reading. But it's hard not to see the commercial as another expression of Armstrong's galactic persecution complex, one that completes the process whereby the cyclist has wrapped himself so completely in his own worthy cause that anyone who questions the one is necessarily questioning the other. Slate.com's Bill Gifford is exactly right to argue this is a move cribbed from the playbook of resentment politics ("Sarah Palin in spandex?" the headline asks). Gifford writes of the commercial:
Over somber piano music, we see black-and-white scenes of doctors at an operating table, cancer patients in hospital gowns, a bald man hooked up to a respirator, a man with one leg on a treadmill. All of this is intercut with scenes of Armstrong riding his bike. "The critics say I'm arrogant," Armstrong says. "A doper. Washed up. A fraud. That I couldn't let it go." Pause. "They can say whatever they want. I'm not back on my bike for them."
It's jarring, dramatic, and memorable-and not in a good way. While it's curious that a multinational company chooses to sell athletic wear in this fashion, the ad is even more interesting for what it tells us about Armstrong's psyche. On its surface, it reinforces the idea that Lance is standing behind the victims of a disease that nearly claimed his life. That is indisputable. It also, however, pushes the idea that Armstrong is some kind of savior. His Shepard Fairey-designed bikes are emblazoned with two numbers. The first, 1,274, is the number of days between his last race and his comeback. The second, 27.2, represents the number of people, in millions, who died from the disease during that time. Is Armstrong suggesting that there's some kind of causal link between him not riding his bike and people dying from cancer?
The ad also implies, disturbingly, that the cyclist's "critics"-and that includes everyone who thinks he's arrogant-are equivalent to cancer. It is apparently not enough for him to ride his bike and lead a positive campaign. He can't help but go after his detractors at the same time. And you thought Sarah Palin was divisive.
Armstrong's petulance is understandable, at least to a point: He's been held up as the face of doping in a sport that owes its very existence to doping. Its earliest practitioners were, as author John Hoberman has written, "continuing the work of of experimental physiologists interested in learning how much abuse animals or humans could take" and who, to weather the stress, spiked their coffee with cocaine and strychnine and took nitroglycerin to aid their breathing. If he has been persecuted, it has been for the sins of his own sport.
The result, however, is that he has curdled into the joyless, scowling Nixon-on-a-bike we see today, one who snarks at his critics from his Twitter account and who needs useful idiots like Rick Reilly to lighten up his image. (Seriously, read Reilly's latest. He talks to Armstrong's bare ass.) This may render him largely insufferable to a segment of the public, but it makes him a perfect pitchman for a shoe company that sells a certain spirit of sporty resentment, and sells it hard. The Nike commercial is the latest step in Armstrong's personal evolution. He has critic-proofed himself. In his mind, he is beyond any questions of guilt and innocence now. He is the Messiah of the infirm.