Or Wheels on Fire
“When I was a boy I invented a game called fireball, which entailed soaking a large sheep’s bladder in bullfat, lighting it on fire, and playing catch with it.”
What a charming story from the youth of Prometheus, who later stole fire from the Gods in order to help humankind thrive and create: and was punished by having an eagle peck at his liver.
It’s easy enough to imagine the scene, even Poseidon telling him off. But, in fact, it wasn’t his story: for it was really a tennis ball soaked in kerosene, and the catcher was a poor boy from Plano, Texas who went on to become, just this month, only the fourth person to win the Tour de France four consecutive years. Back home, Lance Armstrong has already attained mythical status.
Here are some delightful comparisons with the Titan. Armstrong – and what a heroic name is that! – did not know his father and referred to him as “the DNA donor”. His prodigious athleticism was soon apparent but such was his adolescent hubris, his trainer, Chris Carmichael observed “He just thought he was King S***”.
Then one day in his young manhood, he suddenly felt something metallic in his throat. Was he like Flann O’Brien’s character slowly metamorphosing into his bike? No – it was only the sign of mere mortality. And not just mere, but at the core of masculinity, in those very balls of fire and life, testicular cancer. The treatment required a different kind of fire: and the chemotherapy was so intense it left burns on his skin from the inside out.
But he refused to die, refused to live a stunted life. He rose from these fires, fighting to be more than fit: he increased his heart size and strength so it is a third larger than average and beats between 32 and over 200 times per minute. To the unlearned its resting beat gives him the appearance of death, and at his peak it is like the ascending lark’s or perhaps even the swooping eagle’s. He is in the saddle 35 hours a week during training and 86 hours for the Tour.
His natural ability seems unbelievable. The World Anti Doping Agency – doesn’t that sound like a Olympian Committee Zeus formed to check on rivals – once swooped down at his home at dawn demanding a urine sample: to see if he had been carrying chemical fire in his blood. He would point to a different force inside him, a capacity to suffer. “The people who win are the ones willing to suffer the most. Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it’s absolutely cleansing. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain.” This ‘burn’ is on a higher moral plateau than Jane Fonda’s. Again, one thinks of the equanimity of Prometheus tormented day after day.
When I read about Armstrong’s boyhood game I immediately thought of Freud’s late paper ‘The Acquisition and Control of Fire’ (1931):
“The warmth that is radiated by fire calls up the same sensation that accompanies a state of sexual excitation, and the shape and movements of flame suggest a phallus in activity. The liver was regarded as the seat of all passions and desires – its significance, symbollically the same as fire. The bird which sates itself on the liver would then have the meaning of a penis. A short step further brings us to the phoenix, the bird which, as often as it is consumed by fire,emerges rejuvenated once more, and which probably bore the significance of a penis revivified after its collapse.”
My second thought was the title song from the sixties children’s tv programme:
I wish I was a spaceman
The fastest guy alive.
I’d fly you round the Universe
On Fireball XL5.
Of course I didn’t think then that his rocket referred to his penis! Nor did the young Lance Armstrong, playing with fire. But was this detached fiery member his own tempered penis, or his absent father’s?
The cyclists’ term for running out of energy is ‘bonked’. Though it more commonly means ‘hit’ or ‘f***’ perhaps it being imported into this context is not surprising.
Freud’s hypothesis is that “In order to gain control over fire men had to renounce the homosexually-tinged desire to put it out with a stream of urine.” The Gods are seen as instinct-driven. “What God wants, God gets!” Roger Waters sang. But there is also the anxiety that the being/person who renounces instincts and desires become the more powerful creator. The God-like instinct-driven infant has to be civilized by renouncing most of its instincts. It is offered the lure of becoming a different kind of God.
Which is the better ‘cleansing’ aspiration – to imitate Christ or Prometheus unbound?
This piece is based on Michael Specter’s article on Armstrong 2002: published in The Sunday Telegraph UK: 21/7/2.
It is written by Kalu Singh, seen for many years, on a Hercules Two-Basket Ladies Shopper-Bike, as King of the Absent Mountains of Cambridge.