Home Sociology Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma
Abstract: This chapter examines fallen sports stars’ narratives about their ‘beginnings’ - their early life, the emergence of their sporting talent and success, and their early successes as professional athletes. These selfpresentations serve to establish the individuals’ ‘core social identity’ and personal traits and qualities. Particular attention is paid to how these narratives present the hardships and problems of their childhood, experiences which are later used as the basis for explaining and excusing subsequent involvement in doping.
Yar, Majid. Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. doi: 10.1057/9781137403759.0006.
All of our authors’ accounts proceed in a chronological manner, beginning with childhood. The narration of a life story in a chronological order, starting with childhood, is a conventional feature not only of autobiography, but also of literary fiction - for example, as Charles Dickens’ eponymous hero David Copperfield famously offers, ‘to begin my life with the beginning of my life, I recall that I was born ...’ (Dickens, 2000: 5). This narrative stage serves an important role in establishing what we might call the individual’s ‘core social identity’ - who they are in terms of recognisable social classifications, where they have ‘come from’, the primary relationships (of family, kinship and friendship) that have defined and shaped them. These biographical details answer a need on the part of the reader or audience to be able to socially locate individuals, which we habitually do by drawing upon socially available categories related to class, ethnicity, gender and so on. This interpretive activity of social location involves making inferences about character and qualities that draw upon available stereotypes - it is a way for us to determine ‘what kind of person this is’, and consequently how we should orient ourselves towards them. Moreover, the presentation of a core social identity lays narrative foundations for the subsequent use of techniques of neutralisation that explicitly reference formative childhood experiences. We can recall that, for Sykes and Matza, a crucial element in the ‘denial of responsibility’ is to displace liability for deviant actions onto challenging social circumstances - ‘it may ... be asserted that delinquent acts are due to forces outside of the individual and beyond his control, such as unloving parents, bad companions or a slum neighbourhood’ (1957: 667). It is therefore telling that in narrating their beginnings, all of our five sports stars devote time and attention to problematic childhoods, centring variously upon family breakdown, parental abandonment, or mental health problems, and their damaging effects on the athlete’s self.
Millar recalls, at the conclusion of the first chapter of his book, the breakdown of his family following his parents’ separation and subsequent divorce:
But there were problems at home. It became impossible to ignore the troubles between my parents ... I remember being incredibly fucking angry. My childhood had come to an abrupt end. I was 11. (Millar, 2012: 19)
The chapter that immediately follows this revelation is titled simply ‘THE MESS’. This connotes a number of inter-related meanings - on one level it refers to the officers’ mess that was frequented by his father (who served at the time in the Royal Air Force); simultaneously, it intimates that his life had become ‘a mess’ and that his parents’ divorce had ‘messed him up’:
Now I can see that I wasn’t happy. I didn’t like our new home, school made me miserable and, to make matters worse, we had no money. (Ibid.: 20)
Other terms used to describe his situation and experiences at the time include ‘tumultuous’, ‘upheaval’ and ‘damaged’.
The opening paragraph of Chambers’ autobiography throws us straight into his abandonment by his father:
When my mum was carrying me, my real father (Robert Chambers) left the family home ... (Chambers, 2009: 1)
As we shall see in later chapters, this ‘loss of the father’ resurfaces in Chambers’ interpretation of his choices relating to doping. Jones also begins her life-narrative with the theme of paternal abandonment:
I was around four years old when my father walked out and abandoned our family ... Thereafter, George spurned my attempts to be part of his life ... There was a lot of pain and confusion in my heart. (Jones, 2010: 17)
As a consequence, she relates that:
I did not know how to deal with it properly. So over the next few years, I started acting out and getting into trouble at school. (Ibid.: 17-18)
An early link is thus forged between childhood problems and delinquent behaviour (Millar likewise describes how, in the wake of his parents’ divorce, he started ‘rebelling’ - Millar, 2012: 21). The damage to self, caused by these experiences, is later invoked by Jones as part of a ‘denial of responsibility’ that seeks to displace blame onto others who are deemed to have exploited the vulnerability created in childhood. Interestingly Millar, Chambers and Jones all use the informal terms ‘mum’ and ‘mom’, as would a child, rather than the more formal and grown-up ‘mother’. This choice reinforces the sense that, in these passages, it is the author-as-child that speaks, and does so from a position of fragility and vulnerability in a world of more powerful adults.
Armstrong’s story recapitulates the themes of a missing father, a brave mother, poverty and hardship:
The main thing you need to know about my childhood is I never had a real father ... My mother was 17 when she had me, and from day one everyone told her we wouldn’t amount to anything. (Armstrong, 2001: 17)
My mother was alone. Her parents were divorced, and at the time her father ... my grandfather ... was a heavy drinking Vietnam vet who ... lived in a mobile home. Her mother ... struggled to support three kids. Nobody in the family had much help to give my mother. (Ibid.: 18)
To this grim scenario, Armstrong adds an abusive stepfather:
There was one thing my mother gave me that I didn’t particularly want - a stepfather. When I was three my mother remarried, to a guy named Terry Armstrong ... Terry had a bad temper, and he used to whip me, for silly things. Kid things, like being messy ... It didn’t hurt just physically, but also emotionally. (Ibid.: 21)
Of our five narrators, only Hamilton’s account stands out in its representation of a close-knit, loving and nurturing family life. However, he alludes to a different kind of inherited trouble that darkened his childhood, and later cast its shadow across his adult life:
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this problem ... it’s a darkness that lives on the edge of my mind, a painful heaviness that comes and goes . .. When it comes on, it’s like a black wave, pressing all the energy out of me, pushing on me until it feels like I’m a thousand feet down at the bottom of a cold dark ocean ... When I got older, I discovered that darkness had a name: clinical depression. It’s genetic, and our family curse: my maternal grandmother committed suicide; my mom suffers from it as well. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 32)
For all the athletes, the revelations about these troubled early years offer a recognisable basis for claiming both sympathy and helping explain or rationalise their later misconduct. Their power lies in the fact that the association between damaged childhood and delinquent behaviour is already well-cemented in people’s commonplace understanding - it forms part of what we might call a ‘folk criminology’ that people draw upon when making sense of socially disruptive behaviour. In later chapters, we will explore how these events are reactivated by the authors in helping account for their own law- and rule-breaking behaviour as adults. Such narrative reasoning is by no means restricted to disgraced celebrities. For example, in their study of juvenile offenders’ accounts Wainryb et al. (2010: 194) found that ‘they present their actions as being embedded in external circumstances or in other people’s actions - both beyond their control.’ In order to avoid misunderstanding, I wish to emphasise that I do not contest the veracity of any of these claims - I do not doubt that Jones, Millar and Chambers suffered through family breakdown, that
Armstrong was subjected to violent abuse, or that Hamilton suffered (and perhaps continues to suffer) with serious depression. However, what matters more for this account is not whether they are true in a factual sense, but the purpose they play in the narrative that is offered. After all, all narratives involve a selection amongst the myriad life events and experiences that could potentially be included; the inclusion of stories about childhood trauma, loss, confusion, distress and abuse recur across the selected autobiographies because they forge meaningful connections between the individual’s early experiences and their later involvement in transgression. In their analysis of Andre Agassi’s confessional autobiography Open (2010), Harrington and Schimmel (2013) note a similar strategy that links socially disapproved behaviour to the legacy of personal problems; Agassi’s process of autobiographical reasoning (re)casts the drug use [crystal meth] itself not as a sin requiring atonement but as a symptom of private turmoil’ (Harrington and Schimmel, 2013: 68).
A further important feature of personal disclosure about painful episodes and experiences is that it forms part of the wider ‘para-confessional’ logic of the texts in which the author ‘comes clean’ and shares with the public what was once hidden. Self-disclosure of this kind also connotes a trust in the audience, with the admission serving to evoke a sense of intimacy (Cross and Walsh, 2012: 225). As Richard Schickel (2000) argues, the contemporary celebrity is a kind of ‘intimate stranger’ with whom the public seeks a mediated closeness, and comes to feel an affinity through a detailed knowledge of their lives, loves, triumphs and tragedies. Public disgrace erodes this sense of intimacy, and the confessional sharing of secrets is undertaken as a form of ‘emotional work ... in order to limit or repair reputations damaged by scandal and to overcome a perceived betrayal of public trust’ (Nunn and Biressi, 2010: 49).
A second component of this narration of beginnings relates to the athletes’ discovery of their talent in their chosen field of sporting endeavour, and their rise to prominence and success. These accounts serve to establish favourable character, drawing upon a common trajectory of sporting autobiographies, the positive story of ‘the emergence of a striking talent’ and ‘the accomplishing of extraordinary feats’ (Whannel, 2001: 54). The athletes’ passion for their sport is typically presented in terms of an epiphany, replete with a sense of enchantment, wonder or exhilaration:
A defining moment occurred for me in 1984, when the Summer Olympics came to Los Angeles. I was eight years old ... I saw the torch lit and felt this wonderful excitement ... By the end, I was enthralled with track and field.
When I saw the athletes cross the finish line, the excitement in their faces, and the glimmer in their eyes, I wanted to feel whatever was causing that expression. I wanted that experience. (Jones, 2010: 18-19)
The first chapter of Chamber’s autobiography is titled ‘Born to Run, and his discovery of running is described in almost transcendent terms:
It was around this time that I discovered I could run. Running fast is a gift, something you are born with ... Even as an eight or nine-year-old ... running the streets with my friends, I was aware that I had something special ... And when I ran ... I was at peace with the world; content ... it was as if I was in another world. (Chambers, 2009: 4-5)
Millar encapsulates his growing passion for road racing by drawing upon a language of moral virtues:
Little by little, I became fascinated by it all. Road racing seemed purer ... more mythical ... what it did have was epic human accomplishment on a grand scale, performances as seemingly close to super-human as I’d seen in sport ... This was new to me, this culture of sacrifice and obligation ... It appeared to be as much about respect and panache as about winning ... I’d never come across a sport like it. (Millar, 2012: 29-30)
Hamilton appears to offer a link between his athletic talent and what he calls the ‘curse’ of depression:
That day awakened something in me. I discovered that when I went all out, when I put 100 percent of my energy into some intense, impossible task - when my heart was jackhammering, when lactic acid was sizzling through my muscles - that’s when I felt good, normal, balanced ... the more I pushed myself, the better I felt. Exertion was my escape. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012:
This relationship between the budding athletes and their chosen sport, a relationship of joy, escape, excitement, and admiration provides a valuable contrast with the presumptions the audience may have of those condemned as ‘cheats’. After all, to cheat is to dissemble, deceive, manipulate, fake, swindle, and to lie through act or omission about one’s behaviour. Cheating evokes images of a dishonest nature, one that is selfish and indifferent to the rights and needs of others. To narrate one’s feelings for the sport in terms such as ‘pure’, ‘mythical’, ‘respect’, ‘normal’ and ‘peace’ presents the reader with an alternative version of the narrator’s character - behind their later transgressions and betrayals there can nevertheless be found an honest and passionate love of sport, uncontaminated by cynicism and cold calculation.
Finally, this narrative stage lays the implicit groundwork for later claims for redemption in the face of discrediting through an insistence that, in these early years, the authors were ‘clean’ - indeed, they go to significant lengths to emphasise their contempt for drugs, doping and their commitment to ‘racing clean’:
I was quite evangelical about chemical drugs. I found the thought of them fundamentally wrong. (Millar, 2012: 38)
Doping was not for me; what the other guys did, well, that was nothing to do with me. (Ibid.: 81)
the idea that others doped actually inspired me at first; it made me feel noble because I was pure. I would prevail because my cleanness would make me stronger. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 51-2)
after chemo the idea of putting anything foreign in my body was especially repulsive. (Armstrong, 2001: 205)
Alongside establishing ‘cleanness’, the individuals’ ‘basic honesty’ is emphasised:
I made sure I paid everything on time. I paid my taxes, put some money away for a rainy day, paid my agents, and looked after my mother. (Chambers, 2009: 19)
My parents didn’t place many demands on us, except that we always tell the truth, no matter what ... it’s how Dad ran his business and how we ran our family. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 30-1)
These self-representations of ‘clean and honest’ serve to demarcate a core, socially respectable self, despite later ‘mistakes’ and engagement in wrong-doing. In other words, they suggest that the spoiled identity (as ‘cheats’, ‘liars’ and so on) can be compartmentalised to a particular period of their lives, and should not be allowed to infect perceptions about the self in its entirely. The actions and events associated with their shame and disgrace are an episode of a life, not a life in its entirety - and if they once were clean and honest, they can become so again through a process of repair and renewal. The insistence upon a capacity for honesty is also necessary in order to counteract a fundamental problem of credibility. The narrative’s audience will receive it from a position of scepticism, already shaped by the authors’ widely publicised condemnation for their dishonesty and deceit. How, then, can they be assured that this time
the ‘liar’ is being truthful, and that the version of events presented here should be trusted as reliable? Alluding to core values of honesty enables the narrator to offer reassurance that the details which follow are offered from a position of candour, and so should be afforded credence.
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