Coda: on transcending stigma?

Throughout this book, we have explored the various self-representational strategies that disgraced sports stars mobilise in the face of stigmatisation and public shaming and labelling as ‘dopers’ and ‘cheats’. Numerous rhetorical techniques are called upon so as to explain, rationalise and excuse the rule- and law-breaking behaviour that has furnished the basis for their ‘fall from grace’. The autobiographical narratives examined are, I have suggested, concerted exercises in impression management, aimed at swaying public judgement and reshaping the negative definition-of- self with which they have been labelled. However, as Goffman is clear in pointing out, performances of this kind have no assurance of success; audiences may accept the self-presentation offered as sincere, credible and persuasive, thereby acceding to the claims about the deviant self which are offered by narrators. In contrast, they may fail in staging a persuasive performance, in which case the negative labels that underpin stigma will remain largely unaffected. In the worst case scenario from the athletes’ standpoint, their self-presentations may be dismissed as cynical attempts to manipulate public sentiment, and as a consequence further consolidate the very stigmatisation that the individual sought to escape. The success or otherwise of these narrative performances cannot be anticipated in advance. It is likely that numerous contingencies will play a role in determining the outcome. For example, the nature, extent and availability of discrediting information will condition how the narrators’ excuses, rationalisation and expressions of remorse are received. Others’ self-narratives (for example, from erstwhile teammates, colleagues, competitors and friends) may serve to contradict and counteract the plausibility of the accounts offered. Additionally, the reception accorded to the self-narratives by influential ‘opinion formers’ in the mass media (journalists, commentators) will play an important role in framing the accounts for audiences, thereby shaping the credibility that they are afforded. Even where individuals may be judged to have succeeded to some degree in resisting or transcending the stigmatising labels, the performance needs to be sustained and remains vulnerable to further discrediting information that may emerge and to subsequent behaviour that may retroactively undermine the account.

As I write this, we might suggest that three of our five narrators have enjoyed some notable success in reshaping public definitions of their selves, shifting them away from the labels of ‘cheat’, ‘doper’, ‘liar’ and so on. For example, Millar has been re-admitted to the world of professional cycling representing a team founded on anti-doping principles, and his ‘rehabilitation’ has been endorsed by sporting authorities through his role as an anti-doping activist. Hamilton, though now retired, is routinely called upon to comment on the unfolding doping scandals that continue to emerge in the world of cycling, and is presented as a sincere voice who advocates ‘clean’ sport. Chambers has been at least partially vindicated by being re-admitted to Olympic competition and, in the twilight of his sprinting career, regularly represents Great Britain on the international stage. In contrast, Jones’ account has been widely received with scepticism and hostility, and the stigmatising labels have proven obstinately difficult to shift - she remains a ‘fallen star’ in the eyes of many. Finally, in the case of Lance Armstrong, we presently see his struggles against stigmatisation unfolding in real-time upon the public stage - the first moves in accepting yet seeking to modify the label of ‘drug cheat’ through media interviews on his part, while others seek to further cement his status degradation through a drip feed of new accusations and law suits. Whether Armstrong’s narrative ‘journey’ eventually brings him to the point at which his spoiled identity is in any sense repaired or modified remains to be seen; I continue to watch with keen interest, and perhaps readers of this book will do likewise.

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