One Monday morning last month I went to my friendly neighborhood 24 Hour Fitness in Austin, Texas, and discovered that it had been transformed into a Lance Armstrong shrine. Along the back wall, under the heading "The Making Of A Legend," were dozens of photographs of Armstrong, alongside various laminated newspaper articles, Sports Illustrated covers, line-by-line breakdowns of his workout regimen, a racing bike in a glass case, and a history of his life broken into four sections: In The Beginning, The Detour, Born Again Cyclist, and The Road Ahead. A 10-foot-wide mockup of one of those ubiquitous yellow bracelets hung over the check-in desk like a plaster halo. Eight-inch-tall letters, embossed on the bracelets, commanded me to "Live Strong."
"Wow," I said to the desk person, "I wish there were more Lance Armstrong stuff in here."
"Oh, yeah," she said. "It's got something to do with Lance trying to motivate people."
I went into the locker room. There, in another glass case, was an Armstrong reliquary comprised of a biking jersey, shorts, shoes, and fingerless gloves, and, on a hanger, a totally ordinary burnt-orange University of Texas T-shirt. Above me, across the length of the locker room, was a shot of bikers racing down some road in the French Alps, or the Pyrenees, or something, accompanied by this quote: "We are so much stronger than we imagine, and belief is one of the most valiant and long-lived human characteristics."
A few weeks before, the gym's motivational strategy had consisted of easily ignored, plastic-framed, black-and-white photos of guys doing biceps curls. Now I was getting assaulted by vintage-shop shirts and unattributed quotes from the Successories slush pile. What's the point of wallpapering a quote in the locker room, anyway? Was it supposed to inspire me to take a more satisfying shower or have a stronger bowel movement? To change my clothes faster? I didn't need motivation. I don't go to the gym to get motivated. I go to relax, or because I've eaten a half-dozen donuts in the last 24 hours. Anyway, I was there. Wasn't that enough?
Rigorous reading of corporate press releases has revealed that Lance Armstrong is the fourth athlete to sign a commercial treaty with 24 Hour Fitness, along with Magic Johnson, Andre Agassi, and Shaquille O'Neal. The company operates a series of centers devoted to Lance's greatness and donates money to his cancer-fighting foundation. In return, Lance wears the company logo on his jersey and appears in some commercials. The other athletes have similar deals. I can see how Magic figures into the equation. He's an inspirational-type guy and his gyms are going up in underserved urban neighborhoods, though they may be straying a bit from that concept: A new one just opened in Sherman Oaks. I'm having a harder time picturing Shaq's place. Do the patrons get an extra burst of energy from gazing upon photos of his police firearms training? A publicity still from Kazaam? A giant shoe?
I'm certainly not troubled that my gym has devoted itself to Armstrong. Only one man enjoys a higher esteem in Austin, and while I'd prefer to work out at Willie Nelson 24 Hour Fitness, I don't think such a place is forthcoming. And I'm only slightly annoyed by the large-print copy of the Lance Armstrong Foundation's "Manifesto" that hangs by the aerobics room. It's not really appropriate for my gym to tell me, before I go to yoga class, that they will help me bank my sperm if I get cancer, but I know they mean well.
I might even be willing to forget about all the garish memorabilia if the place had any real connection to Lance's life and work. Like, a bicycle that wasn't encased in glass. Other than a redecoration of the spinning room, there doesn't seem to be any extra emphasis on cycling since the redecoration. "Maybe they'll dye the pool water yellow for the Tour de France," suggested one woman in the sauna yesterday.
While handlebars are in short supply, the gym overburdens us with Lance Armstrong's insecurities. Another long quote, this one credited to Lance, overlooks the weight area. By design, I never visit that part of the complex, so I didn't read it until a couple of days ago. "This is my body," it goes. "And I can do whatever I want to it. I can push it. Study it. Tweak it. Listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I'm on. What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?"
So defensive! I wonder why Armstrong would agree to have this quote, which comes from a Nike ad but sounds like a bad moment from a particularly testy press conference, on display in a semipermanent manifestation of his life's work. Honestly, I don't care if or how he "enhances" his performance. He's the greatest bike racer of all time. He beat cancer, and now he raises money to help others do the same. That's great. But please tone down the iconography and the sloganeering.
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