Lance and the return of the repressed

20 January 2013

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Lance’s limited but significant confession on the Oprah Winfrey Show sent me back to USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” – their report on the organised doping conspiracy (their words, not mine) that was represented by Armstrong’s various teams, before and after his comeback.
One of the reasons was to check the odds that Armstrong was telling the truth when he claimed not to have used drugs on his comeback, in an age when biological passports make such things easier to check. The answer: at least a million to one against. USADA asked Professor Christopher Gore of the Australian Institute of Sport to examine Armstrong blood samples taken between 2008 and 2011, looking in particular at reticulocytes (the immature red blood cells that are a clue to the possibility of blood doping):

When Prof. Gore compared the suppressed reticulocyte percentage in Armstrong’s 2009 and 2010 Tour de France samples to the reticulocyte percentage in his other samples, Prof. Gore concluded that the approximate likelihood of Armstrong’s seven suppressed reticulocyte values during the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France occurring naturally was less than one in a million. Prof. Gore [p 140]

But there’s also a striking moment in one of the footnotes of the Reasoned Decision. Go back to the moment in 1999, right at the start of the Tour, when Armstrong was informed at he had tested positive for corticosteroids. [pp 31-32] The team doctor was prevailed on to backdate a prescription saying that Armstrong had taken a cortisone cream for a saddle sore. (According to the evidence given to USADA, Armstrong said to the masseur, Emma O’Reilly, who knew the story to be untrue,
“Now, Emma, you know enough to bring me down”.) But the striking part of the story is in the news conference that Armstrong gave, where he told journalists:

”I made a mistake in taking something I didn’t consider to be a drug,” he said, referring to what he called ”a topical cream” for a skin rash. ”When I think of taking something, I think of pills, inhalers, injections,” he said. ”I didn’t consider skin cream ‘taking something.’ ”

Now, one of Sigmund Freud’s more famous concepts is the notion of “the return of the repressed”, in which a forbidden idea surfaces despite our best attempts to police it. The shrinkwrapped blog explains it like this:

He theorized that an unconscious thought/feeling (Id derived) would constantly press for access to the executive fictions of the mind in order to be discharged. The Ego would be on constant alert to prevent the direct expression of the forbidden idea but the idea would find a disguise and surface as a symptom.

And what’s striking about Armstrong’s language, even in this brief quote, is how much he says about the technology of doping (“pills, inhalers, injections”). A clean rider wouldn’t even have mentioned this. With hindsight, the forbidden idea is escaping its repression.
Armstrong told Oprah that he didn’t think it was possible at that time to win the Tour without doping, and he may be right about this. In Matt Rendell’s book A Significant Other, about Armstrong’s team-mate Victor Hugo Pena in the centenary tour in 2003, Pena maybe gives another clue. He tells Rendell (this is from memory) “We all live this life” – meaning the ascetic life of no alcohol, no chocolate, no parties. “Only Lance leads it more than anyone else.”

The picture at the top of this post is from oprah.com and is used with thanks.

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