The Problem With Athletes as Heroes. [How do you solve a problem like Lance Armstrong?]

by Charlotte on October 29, 2012 · 21 comments

Lance Armstrong, 7-time Tour de France winner, founder of LiveStrong and as close to a real live superhero as we’ve ever had is now, thanks to an investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and other similar international institutions, simply, Lance Armstrong, yellow bracelet wearer. After an insane amount of evidence showed that he probably doped his way to winning the biggest cycling title in the world (and arguably one of the biggest athletic titles in the world) an inhuman seven times, he went from Superman to super sad. Turns out it really was inhuman. So what does the world do with a tarnished superhero? We publicly vilify him, pack him in a case of kryptonite and send him to live on a different planet, duh.

Ah, who am I kidding? He’ll probably get his own talk show. And, weirdly, I’d be okay with that.

The past few months as information about the massive doping scandal has been trickling out, I’ve been going through a whiplash of emotions. Something like this:

1. No way did Lance Armstrong dope! Didn’t we go through all this like 10 years ago? Why can’t the world believe there’s such a thing as a super athlete? Haters gonna hate. Team Lance!

2. Whoa. His teammates really hate his guts. But how can you hate the guy who founded one of the biggest cancer charities in the world (and the attendant website that I’ve used to research so many health topics)? Team Lance!

3. The Anti-Doping Agency seems to have a lot of dirt on him. Team Lance?

4. That’s a lot of eye witnesses to say that they saw Lance take banned drugs or, ick, gave them banned drugs and insisted they take it to race with him. Boo Lance.

5. Since when am I on a first-name basis with Mr. Armstrong? And since when do I care about pro cycling?!

6. I’m gonna wait to pass judgment until all the evidence is in (or out, as the case may be).

7. Oh Lance. Sigh.

Here’s my problem: I NEED Lance Armstrong. I need him to be the quirky, philanthropic, slightly cross-eyed, faster-than-a-speeding-train, relationship-challenged, cancer-surviving uber-athlete we used to know and love. Mostly I just need him to exist.  Because we live in a world of Ukranian Barbie-Women. I wish I was just being snarky but apparently this is a thing now:

Real human beings dieting and plastic-surgery-ing themselves into literal 33-18-33 “living Barbie dolls!” I needed Lance Armstrong to have his superhuman VO2 max (reported to be an alveoli-popping 87), his tree-trunk quads and his unbeatable drive to be the best in a hugely competitive sport to show us how the limits of the human body could be conquered – and not in a way that shrinks or diminishes us. But I needed it to be real. Perhaps Lance is as unnatural as the Barbie women? (At least the Barbies are honest about what they’re doing.) A fallen hero?

I’ve long been uncomfortable calling Lance – or any pro athlete – a “hero.” And this scandal may be primary evidence of the problem with christening people “heroes” because of their athletic prowess. For me, heroes are someone that offers a (often huge) personal sacrifice in order to help someone else. I’m not saying that athletes can’t be heroes but rather that being an elite athlete does not make you a de facto hero. By their nature, athletes are self serving; even when they’re looking to “better the sport” they usually mean by way of making themselves the best. (And don’t even get me started on the “raising awareness” nonsense – unless you put your own money behind it, using your personal fame to draw attention to a cause is no more heroic than is a billboard advertising a cancer charity. It’s not service, it’s marketing.) I’m not saying this is a bad thing. As the Summer Olympics proved, athletics are entertainment at its highest capacity: thrilling, dramatic, artistic, funny, human. And learning to use our bodies to their best capacity is a wonderful experience, no matter what our level of athleticism is. But it’s not heroic.

And yet, we can’t overlook that Lance was a product of his sport, and apparently the sport of cycling demands doping. (Seriously I don’t know anything about cycling, I’m just summarizing what the various reports and interviews are saying. Feel free to correct me.) He certainly wasn’t the only one doping, just perhaps the biggest fish caught in the net. Does this warrant stripping him of all his titles? Even without the drugs, he’s not your average human being. He would have been an amazing athlete no matter what, right? Was his taking drugs just leveling his playing field? Or, because he was the best, is he the one responsible for making the playing field uneven in the first place? How do you solve a problem like Lance Armstrong?

Honestly I still want Lance to succeed. I want him to apologize and pay his restitution (both monetarily and in spirit) but in the end I want to see him happy, healthy and – yes – still an athlete of the highest order. Because everyone is human and I think he has a great opportunity to show his fans how you can make a huge mistake that while it will alter the course of your life doesn’t have to define it. He’s already started with LiveStrong. I hope he’ll continue. I think he can be a hero, yet.

What do you think about the doping scandal? Did Lance Armstrong deserve to be stripped of all his titles? Is what he did any different than the Barbie women? Do you think athletes are heroes?

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Sean @ Learn Fitness October 29, 2012 at 7:59 am

As a past Lance advocate, LiveStrong supporter, and Lance-fan who loves cycling (notice I said love and not loved) I have to admit he deserves everything he’s gotten. It’s important to separate what Lance did for cancer from what Lance did to cycling. I’ll never argue that he helped to inspire millions of people to fight cancer or that he helped raise awareness and empower people to fight it. I will however say that the lengths he went to inflate his ego, to destroy his competition at all costs, and to really destroy anyone in his path was ludicrous and unforgiveable.

I can’t go into the lengths he went to destroy even the simplest of people for concern of them speaking out nor the deception involved of everyone who supported him. In the end he’s guilty (as the mounting evidence is unequivocally showing) and deserves none of the accolades nor praise. Instead he can be held up as a shining example of what not to do in sport … how not to approach being on top.

The biggest difference between him and the barbie women is that one was being seen as a role model by (m | b)illions and was someone we used to call a “hero” and the other is someone only a tiny few would ever aspire to become and who no-one would ever stretch to call a hero let along normal. Children usually develop the ability to distinguish right from wrong and trendy from normal but developing the ability to perceive lies from truths is a much harder thing. With Lance he not only destroyed our faith in what was achievable but he blurred the lines of his massive ego and our compassion with the fight against a dreadful disease … to me this is beyond unacceptable.

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Charlotte October 29, 2012 at 8:41 am

Very powerful comment Sean – esp. coming from one who has more closely followed his career and the consequent scandal than I have. I agree with you about the difference between his sphere of influence and the Barbies’. This: “With Lance he not only destroyed our faith in what was achievable but he blurred the lines of his massive ego and our compassion with the fight against a dreadful disease … to me this is beyond unacceptable.” So well said.

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Crabby McSlacker October 29, 2012 at 8:34 am

I’m with you Charlotte in my hesitation to embrace athletes (or actors or models for that matter) as heroes. It’s just an “easy” source of inspiration to project heroic qualities on celebrities and ignore the extent to which our media crafts stories for our consumption. Much better to look around for real-life human heroes, who do the hard stuff and embody both qualities we aspire to with actual human quirks and flaws which are not carefully hidden from view.

Great post!

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Charlotte October 29, 2012 at 8:42 am

Yes – more real-life heroes please! They’re out there:) Love this: ” who do the hard stuff and embody both qualities we aspire to with actual human quirks and flaws which are not carefully hidden from view.”

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Leslie October 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Great post Charlotte, and I totally agree with you, Crabby! Real people are way more inspiring to me than pro-athletes.

Our culture celebrates scandal as much as accomplishment, so I’m thinking Lance will do just fine. I read today that some cheerleader who had sex with an underage teenage boy has signed a contract for a new reality show on MTV, so yeah, a talk show could totally be in the works for Lance.

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Cindy October 29, 2012 at 9:27 am

I feel for anybody who’s pigeons have come home to roost! I think Lance was trained to win at all costs and that is what he did. It is not something I would do but I think it is what is required to win in his sport. I don’t follow his sport or his career but I think he brought a great deal of joy and hope to people’s lives so he can’t be all bad.

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Amy N. October 29, 2012 at 11:09 am

Do I think Lance doped? Heck yeah. Watching one cyclist after another get busted for doping there was no way Lance dominated like did without doping.

Do I think they should have taken away his titles? No. Not because I condone doping, but because the people he was competing against were all doping too so the playing field was still level.

They are working really hard to clean up cycling, and the last few years the winners have all been clean (as far as we know!). However, I have to admit that cycling was a lot more exciting to watch when everyone was doping, they were a heck of a lot braver!

I don’t regret cheering Lance (yes, we are also on a first name basis) on having watched every moment of most of his tour wins, but it is a shame that someone who was such an ambassador for the sport has now fallen.

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Gowers October 29, 2012 at 8:36 pm

But Amy they weren’t all doping and even if they were it still wouldn’t make for a level playing field. That’s why its so unfair and he is no hero.

We all know people with different dose responses to simple legal drugs like paracetamol nevermind EPO and HGH. Also, money talks because drugs cost lots hence winners in sports associated with doping tend to win more. 7 Tours, 5 Tours on the spin, does that sound reasonable in a highly contested global endurance sport? Money gets you better doping programmes and doctors, the latest optimal drugs that work for a specific athlete and access to protocols which prevent positive tests and possibly more importantly (it seems with LA) it gets you the best lawyers to shut the pesky nosey parkers and whistle blowers up.

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Quix October 29, 2012 at 11:49 am

I don’t think that they should have taken away his titles. I think that he passed the tests available at the time, as did everyone else, so they need to make better tests and make it harder/impossible to dope. It feels like telling me that I need to go back and retake my SATs every time they change the standards. I read a lot of articles, saying that anyone who wasn’t doping couldn’t keep up – it was the recovery aspect – that people just don’t recover that quickly from hard workouts without a little help.

I’m definitely not condoning what he did, but it feels crappy to single him out. Clean up the sport, yes. Level the playing field. Make the standards and testing more stringent. Punish people who passed the tests at the time? That seems like the wrong way to attack it to me. Also, considering he used his fame to put together a huge charity that donates lots of money to ending cancer – I sort of feel better about that than if it was just some scummy guy who didn’t do anything to give back.

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Alyssa (azusmom) October 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm

What saddens me the most is that some people who gave money to Livestrong are asking for a refund. I understand being disappointed, but the money truly did go to a good cause. Like Sean said, I think we can separate the athlete from the advocate.
I personally do not think athletes are heroes. Yes, they perform amazing physical feats, but how is that heroic, in the true sense of the word? I admire them, I like them, I root for them, and I congratulate them (Yay, Giants!!!!), but I don’t worship them. Or any celebrity. Partly because I know what goers into the making of a celebrity, and it ain’t all that pretty. Some celebrities lend their images, time, and give money to good causes, and that’s a good thing. But to hold someone up a a hero because they look good or are simply good at what they do is kind of silly, IMHO.

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Alyssa (azusmom) October 29, 2012 at 11:25 pm

P.S., those women are REALLY scary!

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Dr. Mark October 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Put someone on a pedastal long enough and they are bound to disappoint. I don’t know the truth, and don’t care, but I think we need to stop treating athletes like they are somehow different from the rest of us. We all make mistakes. If it’s true, he needs to just go away.

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deb roby October 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Just did a tiny little research about LiveStrong the charity. It looks like this might also be “cheat”: Like Susan Komen, they spend inordinate amounts of money fundraising and paying their board and chairpeople (Lance is still a board member), and not much money actually helping cancer patients. Have been unable to find a recent rating my any of the charity watch organizations that know this stuff, but I be suspicious.

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Jody - Fit at 54 October 29, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Without typing my slow typing, ;), I am so with you & Crabby! I am so more inspired by real life people in this regard & losing weight or anything else…..

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kat October 29, 2012 at 7:39 pm

I WAS a huge cycling fan and have followed Lance since before his first TDF win. I rooted for him at first, but after a few years his massive ego just annoyed me. Every cyclist i cheered for since was caught doping which ruined the sport for me. I am not sure what the solution is but I do miss following cycling. One thing that has not come up… regarding Lance repaying what he won… it is customary for the TDF winner to share his winnings with his team, this could be another can of worms!

and, like most of you, i do not think being a great athlete makes one a hero, Admirable, yes. Hero, no. There are many heroes in our everyday lives that we never hear about.

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Jonathan Aluzas October 29, 2012 at 7:46 pm

I don’t think athletes are heroes BECAUSE they are athletes, I think they have the same potential for heroism dependent upon the manner in which they conduct themselves in life. Heroism is based on character, not job title.

I don’t know. I still have mixed feelings as well. I still think he’s the greatest cyclist in history. I think the guys that ratted him out were cowards.

I can’t even comment on the Barbie doll thing. That’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen.

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Matt October 29, 2012 at 8:42 pm

As a bike racer myself, the doping scandle doesn’t really phase me much. Pro riders are on a whole different planet than guys like me.

They guys I race with are half as fast as Lance and even they are many times faster than me on their worst day.

I don’t know what that means on the whole, just thought I would offer a bike racers perspective.

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purelymichelle October 29, 2012 at 8:52 pm

I still believe in Lance. He is still one of my favorite athletes. Because no matter what he still had to get on that bike for that many hours, that many days and completed the race.
I do not look at athletes as heroes, but as real people doing amazing things.

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Aurora October 30, 2012 at 9:34 am

I think people like Lance, and other athletes (doping and not) are still heroes, not because they can pedal really fast but because they have perseverance that seems inhuman. When was the last time I decided I would train something day and night to become the most amazing in the world at it? Never. Just the ability to do that, no matter what methods you use, is beyond impressive. I wish I were as dedicated to anything — knitting, softball, playing the piano, whatever have you — as Lance is to biking.

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Anita October 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I’m still having a really hard time articulating my thoughts regarding Lance Armstrong these past several weeks. I’m a fan of men’s professional cycling and have watched Lance do the Tour de France race for literally hundreds of hours – he was an inspiration to persevere and conquer that course. I’ve also been very proud of his Livestrong Foundation and the positive effects he’s had in many people’s lives that are battling cancer. According to the recent testimony, it does look like he did partake of PEDs despite never being found positive on a drug test with the technology available at the time (or presently). We really don’t know what the PED status was of any other top tour contender at that time other than what the lab results told us. – it’s likely they all doped to some degree and who knows what current supplementation protocols would be judged as PED in the future? My personal opinion is that the old Tour standings should stand. Footnotes added after the fact will be made and Lance’s reputation is permanently marred. The winnings are gone and dispersed , it’s sad he’s made to reimburse, but he’s got the sponsorships and money post Tour to do that, I guess – many others wouldn’t. I just feel an enormous sadness for Lance.

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Melissa October 30, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Love your blog! This post sums up the conflicting emotions I have about Lance Armstrong.

But now I have “The Sound of Music” in my head… “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” :-)

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