What do you call a man who overcomes cancer to become a sports icon? When I used to think about Lance Armstrong, the word “hero” always came to mind. Winning seven Tour de France titles (getting even one is an amazing accomplishment) after beating a disease that is a worse villain than most antagonists in films and literature, Lance stood for believing in the underdog, the guy who could overcome anything. He was an action hero to be sure, a guy any kid or adult could look up to for his talent and nobility.
Alas, this is not a story with a happy ending. As in most tragedies, the central hero has a flaw, one that subsumes all his courage, ability, and accomplishments. Achilles had his heel; Hamlet his procrastination, but Lance had something else entirely: he had a desire to win and put everything else beneath that in order to succeed. His decision to stop fighting the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency brings to an end the myth; Armstrong is stripped of his seven titles, he loses his Olympic medal, and is banned for life from participating as an athlete or owner (he’s currently part owner of the Radio Shack cycling team).
Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the USADA, said, “It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes.” Let’s credit Tygart with hitting the nail on the head. People everywhere are rightly hanging there heads, and this devastating but inevitable outcome is like seeing Hamlet dead on the floor at the end of the play, knowing how great he was and could have been if not for the tragic flaw that brought him to his end.
This has been a hard year in sports. We can list the names: Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, and now Armstrong. All the asterisks, all the stripped titles, all the lost medals and public disgrace aside, there is absolutely no redemption to be had here. All sports lovers and the legitimate players suffer under the shadow of what these people have done. Now, each time there is a phenomenal accomplishment, such as the amazing Ye Shiwen, the Chinese swimmer accused of cheating at this year’s Olympics, there will always be doubts. Did he? Did she? This casts a dark cloud over all sports now and for a long time to come.
Why is hit so hard for us to accept that there are no heroes anymore? It is an essential thing in our psyche to want our heroes to be bigger than life. The greatest heroes in literature and film, think Ivanhoe or Sinbad or even Rambo and Harry Callahan, make us want them to succeed because they defy all odds, rise above the rest of us somehow, and defeat the forces of evil. But now the hero seems to become lost, even Batman and Spider Man have morphed into dark versions of themselves, unable to be heroic as they once were, because the world has changed and the game along with it. It is harder to tell the protagonist from the antagonist and, sometimes, we are not sure who is who anymore.
Lance Armstrong was once the greatest of stories in sports. He fought hard against an ugly opponent, fought just as hard against the terrain in France and won it all. We were there with him, rooting for the American who conquered the impossibly difficult French course again and again. To make us admire him even more, he created a charity, Livestrong, to help those with cancer, and that was a wonderful thing and raised millions of dollars. Now it’s all gone: the honor, the glory, and the legend. Lance Armstrong has given up the fight against the USADA, and we all feel defeated because he is a lost action hero.
In the film Die Hard the evil terrorist Hans Gruber tells trapped New York cop John McClane that this time Grace Kelly doesn’t walk off into the sunset with John Wayne. McClane corrects him and tells him “Gary Cooper,” but maybe Gruber was on to something happening to American culture. Of course, in the end McClane wins in the movie, but this is no film. This is real life and the hero doesn’t walk off into the sunset; Armstrong slinks off stage defeated and destroyed.
It has been a hard year in American sports. Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” The problem is not just that Joltin’ Joe has gone away, but so have those of his ilk whom we could admire, and there is no one to replace them. Sadly, I do not know when we can regain our confidence in sports figures or if we ever will. And, as Armstrong finally accepts his fate (and perhaps the legal action that will follow him), we can only hang our heads in shame because of him and the other American sports figures who cheated or have done wrong. We have fallen so very far into a dark abyss, and we are left to wonder when we will ever see the light again.
Photo Credits: Armstrong-biography.com; Ye Shiwen-guardian.uk.co