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

Posted Oct 29 2012 8:33am

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?

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