It appears that the public’s interest in explosive, dramatic winners, almost guaranteed that the best known cycling legend of our time would also be a doper and a liar.
I can’t imagine a scenario where a cyclist could have become as well loved as Lance with a charity as successful as Lance’s without the expectation-defying results Lance got from doping and a single-minded focus on winning. Winning the tour gave Livestrong a gigantic boost in publicity and inspirational value. People say that he would have been a hero if he’d just gotten on his bike again, but he could have placed fifth in the tour in 1999 and received hardly a mention in our newspapers.
Because the public glorifies and enriches people who win repeatedly, and because winning in cycling in those years appeared to require doping, there was almost no way a clean hero could emerge. Because Lance knew that Livestrong’s success was partially dependent on his image as a clean cyclist, it seems likely that Lance might have justified lying to the world by thinking of all the people who he would let down if he admitted to cheating. Even now people are saying that they are mad at USDA for taking away their hero by telling the truth. The Huffington Post doesn’t condone cheating, but they would prefer to be lied to than know the truth. “Now, I’m not condoning cheating in sports, but USADA failed to look at the big picture here. Proving their point about Lance Armstrong will do about as much good as telling a kid Santa Claus doesn’t exist. All it does is kill that spirit of hope.” If this argument holds water, it seems that Lance was almost morally obliged to lie to the world to preserve the spirit of hope he created for cancer patients. It’s up for debate if he needed to sue and harass the people who told the truth along the way to preserve the hope.
The culture that rewards winning and extraordinary accomplishments more than honesty and fairness still exists as evidenced who all of those who comment that they are angry that “my tax-dollars were spent to take away my hero.” We collectively hold some responsibility for the “sadness” people feel as their hero is crucified because it was our own fascination with winning that created a situation where winning was more important than honesty.
For example, Nike definitely suspected that Lance was doping because of years of accusations by a variety of witnesses and multiple suspicious lab results. Nike didn’t drop Lance because they “discovered” he was doping last week-if they were truly worried about supporting a doper he would have been long gone. Nike dropped him because the public has finally realized that his winning came only through lying and cheating and the majority no longer looks up to him. Nike is monetarily rewarding the people who we chose to look up to. If the public wanted to buy shoes from honest, caring athletes, then the ex-Postal service rider who quit cycling because he didn’t want to dope could be Nike’s favorite athlete. But instead BBC writes that “you have probably never heard of this little-known professional cyclist” who they call an “unlikely new hero.”
There are comments that suggest our definition of hero is faulty, and dependent on the hero’s remarkable, and possibly unrealistic assent to greatness. One reader writes, “If Lance Armstrong can fall, is there any idol whose perch is unassailable, anyone whose record cannot be impeached? Is there anyone left who we can still believe in?” Perhaps becoming an idol to the public requires a win at all costs attitude that encourages cheating when it inevitably becomes clear that cheating can help in the short term. It is well acknowledged that honest politicians have almost no chance of success and that even good men twist their beliefs to win the support of the public.
To think that there is no one left “who we can still believe in” makes me think that this man has limited his hero pool to those with superhuman accomplishments and is ignoring genuinely good people. My life is full of heroes. On ASU cycling rides, I met Dr. Jacqui Lockwood who offered her time and expertise freely to all who loved sports. She taught new female cyclists how to fix their own bike, helped me fix my shoulder problem that other doctors didn’t understand, and gave me to-go bags full of extra food she’d made for charity. She contributes her knowledge to local fitness programs and rides lead on tandem bikes so that blind cyclists can race. Instead of accepting payment for her services to students she just asks that we bake cookies for her husband. Couldn’t Dr. Jacqui be this man’s hero? If it sweetens the deal, she was also faced with a life-threatening tumor that she discovered when her heart rate was too high on a training ride. When faced with death she thought about how she wished she’d been able to win a national championship jersey, but that she could accept the life God gave her. She came back from a disease as deadly as testicular cancer, won those championship jerseys and still holds a record for riding 40 miles on the track in one hour.
Losing Lance the hero doesn’t mean that we need to lose hope in finding a hero. It might mean that most of us need to redefine what we think is heroic and get real about the consequences of a win at all costs mentality.