Friday, October 19, 2012

Heroes Don't Live Here Anymore

           In light of the Lance Armstrong case, is our faith in sporting icons misplaced?
So it is all but official now. The grey cloud that seems to have been hovering over the head of cycling legend, Lance Armstrong, seems to have gone full black, and stormed on his parade.

Last week, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released their findings, which all but damned already-banned and title-stripped Armstrong. The 1000+ page report included sworn testaments from 26 witnesses including eleven of Armstrong’s teammates. Blatantly put, the USADA found “proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Lance Armstrong engaged in serial cheating through the use, administration and trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs and methods that Armstrong participated in running in the US Postal Service team"
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Despite Armstrong’s insistence that the case against him is a ‘one-sided witch hunt’, it is safe to say that the reasonable majority realizes that we've been had. Teammates, opponents and other associates are pointing a stern finger at Armstrong, and his defense is getting less and less credible. The man who defined cycling in recent history, the one household name in a discipline in which most people would struggle to name another two athletes is turning out to be a fraud.

Armstrong belongs to a very exclusive clique in the sporting world: men and women who have transcended the role of athlete, and now stand apart as icons of culture and human achievement. Included in this elite family are the likes of Pele, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods, Jesse Owens, Mohammed Ali, Billie-Jean King et al. (Current phenomena, such as Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Kobe Bryant and Roger Federer, have arguably earned their place -and if not, they will most certainly have in a few years). 
What sets Armstrong even further apart from this pack - with the exception of maybe one or two others - is the gravity of the obstacles he had to overcome on his ride to immortality. In 1996, Lance was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. The cancer went into complete remission in 1998, at about the time he began his 7 consecutive year reign of the Tour De France. His legacy as a cancer survivor lives on through his "Lance Armstrong Foundation", which has raised almost half a billion dollars through the sale of the unmistakable yellow “Live Strong" bracelets.

Yet that hero, survivor, and cultural icon is being shown to be a fraud, and the allegations seem to get uglier by the day.

Much as Armstrong belongs to the aforementioned group of demigods, he now joins an even more eclectic, yet disappointingly growing clique: that of presumed sporting heroes who have fallen from grace. Other names on this list include track stars Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, legendary Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, Roger Clemens, and Tiger Woods. Legal woes have also dogged Gretzky, Bryant, among others, while the likes of Maradona, McEnroe, and Mike Tyson have attracted their fair share of negative publicity.

 “I'm not a role model... Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids. 
    – Charles Barkley

At the risk of diluting the issue at hand, it is important to point out that, for a number of reasons, Armstrong’s deception might do more harm to the sport than the other folks listed above. As great as they were/are, hardly any of them single-handedly defined their disciplined in the way that Lance did. Tyson was fierce, but he was one of several contemporaries who could hold their own in the ring. Maradona’s drug use compounded disciplinary problems, but one cannot deny his brilliance on the soccer field. As abominable as the Penn State scandal is, Joe Paterno’s role in it and what it means for his legacy are still very polarizing points of discussion. In the case of Woods, Bryant and others, their particular misbehavior was outside of their immediate sporting field and thus the fraternity was able to almost put it behind them and allow for a comeback.

Thus when we look at Lance, we are looking at a man synonymous with the sport, and whose actions did not only unfairly disadvantage competitors, but may well have cast an indelible stain in the eyes of sponsors and fans. He is a hero to many people who have never once watched one race of his, and now the whole foundation of his legend is unfolding to be a lie. I, for one, stand with the masses in utter disillusionment.

Public sentiment thus raises the question: what is in a hero? A role model? Do we have any business looking up to a man/woman of whom only a few aspects are shown to us?  Do they owe us ‘acting right’? Will the 'Live Strong' movement be his redeeming glory? While with Armstrong, the case may be a little easier to decipher, seeing as his deception is directly linked to his success (over and over again), have we, as a society, created the ideal of a hero that puts ordinary people with one or two extraordinary talents under so much pressure that they are bound to break?

         "For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required." - Luke 12:48

A few things are certain: society will always applaud extraordinary achievement, and we will always hope that those we applaud carry our praise with the honor with which it is given. Mr. Barkley may have been right about not raising our kids, but it is also important to recognize that dunking a basketball is only worth anything because society sees it that way; if someone has made their living through defeating others in competition, and the subsequent human recognition that comes with that, there is an innate debt to the rest of us. All the excellence in the world does not cancel out the wrongdoing.

That said, we must be careful that, in whatever judgment, legal or otherwise, society imposes on Armstrong, we do not also disadvantage the multitudes who stand to benefit from his philanthropic work. It is a delicate course to walk; and tread carefully we must.

As for me, well, I’ll be flipping through the sports channels to find something else to believe in, praying and hoping the inevitable day of disappointment never comes.

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