The elevation of heroes

I was devastated this week when International Cycling Union President Pat McQuaid announced that Lance Armstrong, whose story of triumph over testicular cancer inspired millions after he won seven consecutive Tour De France racing titles, was deemed guilty of leading history’s “most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program.” Following the lead of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (which had already stripped Armstrong of all titles and banned him from the sport for life), McQuaid joined a growing peloton distancing itself from Armstrong after the release of the USADA’s 200-page report detailing “one of the most sordid chapters in sports history.”

Because my family has a history with cancer, Lance Armstrong was my hero. I became a cycling fan every July, rooting not just for his individual glory but for the good it might do his cancer fundraising efforts. I bought copies of his autobiography to inspire my students, bought his jerseys for those I knew were newly diagnosed. His was the quintessential story of perseverance in the face of adversity, serving as a model for how we should wring the most out of life. Now, despite his claims of innocence, the body of evidence against his character becomes overwhelming.

Such is the fragility of the modern hero. There is little doubt that Lance Armstrong was considered one of our best; his tolerance of pain was legendary, whether in beating cancer or finishing the grueling mountain stages of the Tour. That he established the Lance Armstrong Foundation to support cancer awareness and research cemented his larger-than-life image. Like many, I can’t help but continue to celebrate the importance of his leadership through his foundation even as his incriminating emails and threatening voice messages come to light. Yet while his ubiquitous yellow Livestrong bands have adorned the wrists of countless millions, his elevation to hero status was always an awkward one.

In his book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell defined the classic definition of a hero as, “Someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Great leaders are not heroic unless they are working for humanity’s sake — their moral objective is to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Through the centuries, society always requires heroes because we need constellating images to pull together all our tendencies to separate, to bring us together toward a common goal. Heroes inspire us, allow us to see the possibility of our perfection. They are the example to whom we point and say, “This is the best we can be.”

It’s difficult for anyone to live up to this ideal, and that’s the point. It shouldn’t be easy for society to bestow heroic status when, by doing so, we set our collective compass to that path. Lance Armstrong, like many modern athletes, displayed some of the attributes of Campbell’s hero. His superhuman strength on the bike was augmented by his victory over cancer. To borrow from a recent Lebron James ad, “We were all witnesses” to feats that showed we were capable of more than we’d ever imagined.

And yet, as sports writer Matthew Goodman pointed out in 1993, there’s an inherent paradox in looking to athletes for our heroes. “The very qualities that a society tends to seek out in its heroes — selflessness, social consciousness, and the like — are precisely the opposite of those needed to transform a talented but otherwise unremarkable neighborhood kid into a Michael Jordan or Joe Montana.” To reach the pinnacle of athletic success requires a persistent, determined focus on oneself for years, often resulting in thousands of hours of solitary practice on a talent with little inherent value to society (putting a ball through a hoop, for instance). This isn’t to say every successful athlete is devoid of substance, but rather that the process itself rewards behavior not necessarily in the interest of society as a whole. To confuse those qualities that result in accomplishment on the field with those needed to lead a society is counterproductive, especially when seeking to establish the standard bearers for the community.

When I ask my students about their heroes, they bring up celebrities like Taylor Swift or Ne-Yo. If adulation of true heroes inspires others to make sacrifices for those around them, what does mere celebrity worship encourage? Today, there are many people famous for nothing other than being famous (Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, Nadya “Octomom” Suleman) or worse, for being infamous (Kim Kardashian, Monica Lewinsky). In a society that mistakes fame for success, and that success for achievement, it’s dangerous to confuse the status of celebrity with the qualities of the hero. Whether Paris Hilton or Perez Hilton, these people don’t necessarily make a habit of sacrificing for society’s benefit.

As a result, I can’t ratchet up any indignation when Lindsay Lohan gets arrested (again), when LeBron “takes his talents to South Beach,” or when Alex Rodriguez lets his team down by sending a ball up to the stands during a playoff game looking for a bikini model’s digits. As Charles Barkley once observed, they never signed up to be role models — we did that for them. As much as I’d love for all athletes and celebrities to choose to be role models, it’s never going to happen. It’s on us to either choose more wisely or keep picking up the pieces when they fall.

Even though Lance Armstrong currently occupies that rare intersection between sports star, celebrity, hero, and pariah, we can’t stand defeated as yesterday’s heroes wilt under the glare of scrutiny. Instead, look to those heroes who walk among us every day — disguised as little Pakistani girls like Malala Yousufzai, shot in the head by the Taliban last week after advocating education for girls in her country.

As much as I would have loved for Lance to be everything I’d hoped he was, I’ll settle for half of what Malala appears to be.


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