I don’t follow sports. I couldn’t give two damns about cycling, football, curling, or pro bowling. So maybe I’m not invested in this as some other people, but I have to admit this whole Lance Armstrong backlash confuses me. I understand people, especially fans, being disappointed in Armstrong.
Except I don’t think this has much to do with that. I think it’s about facing our own limitations, our own disillusionment. We love our heroes as much as for what they represent as who they are. There is, it seems, an animal instinct in us to venerate the strong and powerful. We call them athletes, and we love them.
But can we honestly say we’re surprised that Armstrong was using enhancement options that aren’t strictly allowed? The competition is fierce, and the drive to win is what makes these athletes into champions in the first place. We adore their accomplishments. We hold them up as ideals. And then, when they do what it takes to meet those ideals, we turn on them as if they’ve betrayed us.
I’m not trying to justify Armstrong’s choices. At the same time, we’re only talking about those choices because they made him popular and famous in the first place. Before Armstrong, how often did American’s even hear about professional cycling? It’s the athlete’s paradox. We really only care about them if they’re great, but if they do what it takes to be great, we shake our heads and act shocked. Let’s face it. There are limits to what humans can accomplish. But we don’t want to stop. We want our athletes to be faster, stronger, tougher. We want them to break records. We love it. And we really don’t care how they do it until they get caught.
If Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs, are we supposed to believe he was an exception, not the rule? Are we supposed to believe the guy who came in second isn’t doing the same? It’s like expecting a guy to fight the Hulk without the benefits of gamma-induced superstrength.
It’s like a great big lie we all know isn’t true but is simply too appealing to resist. I’m not endorsing such tactics, but we should be honest about it. We shouldn’t pretend as if an awful lot of athletes aren’t doing exactly this, and that they have to because other athletes are doing it. And because we demand it.
Folks cheered Armstrong on. Now they hate him for his perceived weakness.
And maybe that’s his real crime. Lance Armstrong isn’t a hero. He’s just a dude. Fallible, weak, prone to bad decisions, eager for glory, willing to do dumb things to get what he wants. His crime is that he’s human, and that’s probably the worst thing any athlete can be.