The Beautiful Shirts of Jay Gatsby and Lance Armstrong
After the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published their bulletproof report of his cheating, Lance Armstrong clung to a fantasy. From his Texas mansion he tweeted—“Back in Austin and just layin’ around…”—along with this photo. Fittingly, Armstrong avoided the correct form of the verb “to lie” as he showcased the now meaningless jerseys. In the photo he is surrounded by the absurd shirts he will never wear and which perfectly symbolize his counterfeit cycling career.
Lance Armstrong belongs to a fiction. As with literary fiction, the professional sports world operates in a sphere safely outside of reality. Sports fans suspend their disbelief about the fictive, temporary nature of that universe in order to believe in its mythologies, to cheer on greatness, to rejoice in the heroic journey. The extensive USADA report recently confirmed what fans had long believed: Armstrong’s entire cycling career was submerged in the lie that he never cheated to enhance his performance. In the interview where he was supposed to, after 17 years of doping, face the reality of the outside world, the world outside of sports, he showed that he isn’t even capable. He kept lying, even with the world crashing around him. In Armstrong’s mind, there is only this sphere, where winning and domination are all that matter.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, the great Jay Gatsby is likewise delusional—and proud of his shirts. He throws out shirt after shirt in a blatant display of the wealth he hopes will attract Daisy. And of course it does, for she is as shallow as his house is big. “‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.’” Though, like Armstrong, Gatsby’s dreams are buried in value-empty commodities, this Gatsby fellow is different. We don’t hate him. We don’t hate his stupid house or expensive car or useless shirts. This is because the sphere of literary fiction, unlike the sphere of professional sports, allows us to suspend not only our disbelief but also our ethical apparatus, our moral compass.
Sports and literature, like political and social class arenas, are play spheres. I mean something like what Johan Huizinga means in his groundbreaking sociology text Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. By designating “play” as not ordinary or real-life, Huizinga helps us understand the temporary set of rules governing particular types of play. While these rules are obvious enough when applied to a sport, there are also special conventions governing the way, for instance, players respond to interviews or the way politicians speak to the American people or the way Fitzgerald’s nouveaux riches say things like “old sport.” These are games. Their play is marked off in a separate physical space and time, and players’ accomplishments—their heroism—is judged with respect to the game itself.
These spheres have porous boundaries. There is slippage between the rules operating within these spheres as they apply to the lives of the players outside of them. Some people, for instance, do care about the personal lives of athletes, and sports reporting has become increasingly concerned with such matters, especially in the era of PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs). When Charles Barkley famously argued in 1993 that athletes should not be role models, not everyone agreed. Others did. Actually, according to a recent ESPN.com poll, 34% of fans say that they don’t care whether their favorite football player is using PEDs. Some of these 34% do not even care whether their favorite player is a complete jerk beyond the hash marks.
The porosity of a given sphere is most evident when cheating leads to collateral damage, when it adversely affects people not involved in the game itself. Consider the careers ruined by Lance Armstrong’s insistence on being clean. He was never content to merely deny doping claims and go about his life. Instead, he sicked his crooked lawyers on those who spoke the truth, such as Emma O’Reilly, whose career was utterly destroyed by his lawsuits. Asked by Oprah Winfrey whether he had sued this woman, Armstrong’s response showed his complete ignorance of the sphere outside cycling. “To be honest, Oprah” he said robotically, “we sued so many people.” It is perhaps this inability to confront a reality outside of cycling that makes Armstrong the ideal cyclist. He is fully, ruthlessly committed to the sports sphere itself.
It is slightly different in the sphere of fiction. Consider Jay Gatsby, the bootlegger-gangster-aristocrat whose car, driven by Daisy, has just run over a woman, killing her. The car is a bright, bright yellow, a yellow as yellow as the jersey worn by the winner of cycling’s end-all-be-all Tour de France, a car well known around those parts, a car that would surely implicate him in the vehicular manslaughter. Nick Carraway, our narrator, advises Gatsby to at least hide the car, seeing both its notoriety and body damage. But, no, Gatsby continues to stare through a window at his Daisy. It’s four in the morning. The man cares about nothing but this prize. He is completely oblivious to any other reality.
In that moment, Nick knows that Gatsby is “watching over nothing,” that he bends his eye on vacancy, as Hamlet’s mother would say. He knows his neighbor is corrupt, that everyone at his lavish parties admires his wealth while shielding themselves from how it was obtained. Nick knows. But he is proud to have given him this strange, untrue compliment, given like a devoted fan of sports greatness, like one who continues to root for Tiger Woods or celebrates the homerun record of Barry Bonds. “They’re a rotten crowd,” [Nick] shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Here, we see our narrator, like Fitzgerald himself, grappling with his romanticization of a way of life constructed upon an essential disconnect from reality. In this sphere, a sphere of fiction ruled by the American Dream of wealth and power, Jay Gatsby is the Great Gatsby.
As readers of literary fiction, we are able to root for Gatsby in his reckless pursuit because Myrtle Wilson isn’t a real person, because Tom Buchanan is a bully and, again, not real. This is the magic of art(ifice). It isn’t real. Never was. Like Nick we temporarily suspend our judgment about Gatsby. We set aside the collateral damage of literary characters, the lives ruined by Gatsby, the rest of the “holocaust” that is completed with his death. But to see Emma O’Reilly, a real person, suffer for telling the truth, that’s harder to ignore.
Yet, even as I insist on the distinction between ethical suspension in the spheres of fiction and sports, the awful connection between the “characters” of Lance Armstrong and Jay Gatsby troubles my sleep. Nick Carraway reflects: “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”
I disagree with Nick—and F. Scott Fitzgerald, too, whose own obsession with wealth and prestige seeped through his earnest critique of the delusion and frivolity of that dream. Fitzgerald was never satisfied with his own version of success, and though he beautifully depicted the destructive power of a gilded dream, it still shimmered in his fiction. You see, Gatsby didn’t turn out alright in the end, and what was mistaken for greatness was but a shifting smokescreen alighted by the lie that he was worth the whole damn lot of them. He wasn’t. Even Nick knew that. A vision of greatness consumed the character of Jay Gatsby, and to belong to that vision meant the full eclipse of the reality outside it. It was not merely dust in its wake.
Neither does Lance Armstrong turn out alright. His support corner grows smaller and smaller and smaller. Yes, his greatness at riding around France all doped up on a bicycle made him great in the sports sphere. But for the Americans that saw him defeat cancer and surge by a stunned Jan Ullrich on the murderous climb of l’Alpe d’Huez, he has only a yellow jersey, the index of a long, destructive lie. He will never again exist as the real-life character who achieved greatness. That story belongs to the sphere of fiction.