There has been a bit of debate lately over whether or not cyclist Lance Armstrong is a hero. There have been allegations for quite some time that Mr. Armstrong used banned substances and doping in order to accomplish the incredible feat of winning seven Tour de France titles. Now, the United States Anti-Doping Agency has ruled that he is indeed guilty of such activities, and has stripped him of all prizes and titles he has earned since 1998, in addition to banning him for life from cycling. And while he still says he is innocent, Lance Armstrong has said he will not resist those findings or appeal the ruling.
While I do not know Lance Armstrong, his tenacious drive and competitive spirit do not seem consistent with someone who is indeed innocent simply accepting this kind of consequence. Accordingly–much to my own dismay–I have to assume that the USADA’s findings are accurate.
His winning fight against cancer and his incredible return to cycling made Lance Armstrong a household name, a celebrity, and an inspiration to many. I think one would be hard pressed to find someone who has not seen one of the ubiquitous yellow “Livestrong” bracelets. But what about hero status?
Dictionary.com defines “hero” in part as “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.” I’m afraid Mr. Armstrong doesn’t quite measure up by that definition. While he certainly has demonstrated “distinguished courage,” his ability must be questioned if he has in fact used performance enhancing drugs and/or engaged in blood-doping. I’m afraid any “noble qualities” are also called into question in light of the fact that Armstrong left his wife and children in 2003–after his successful fight with cancer through which she was by his side–and began dating singer Sheryl Crowe only weeks later. He has since moved on from that relationship, as well. There have been multiple reports, as well, of Armstrong engaging in angry verbal assaults toward other cyclists. The other part of the dictionary.com definition says, “a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.” Were there no substantiated cheating, I would say yes, he has performed a heroic act. After all, just completing the Tour de France is incredible, let alone winning it seven times. But that accomplishment is now about as impressive to me as Barry Bonds’ home run record; in other words, not very.
Unfortunately, our culture is so desperate for heroes that influential individuals have intimated that Armstrong is still a hero, regardless of the cheating. Rick Reilly, a well known columnist for ESPN, wrote that if Armstrong “cheated in a sport where cheating is as common as eating” he does not really care. If the standard we go by now is that it doesn’t matter because most everyone else is doing it anyway, we are in serious trouble, and I am not talking about bicycle races. That kind of attitude leads absolutely nowhere good. Newsweek writer Buzz Bissinger wrote of Armstrong, “He is a hero, one of the few we have left in a country virtually bereft of them. And he needs to remain one.” Well, here’s a newsflash for Newsweek: if our standard for heroes is dishonesty, lack of commitment and narcissism, we should have shortage of heroes.
I do not disagree that we all look for people to look up to, to admire, even to aspire to be like. Whether or not that is inherently wrong is probably a discussion for another day. What I do know is that we must be on guard against ever setting anyone up as a hero and thereby putting on blinders to the possibility that he or she may not be quite the shining star we might like to think. The truth is there are plenty of heroes in our world, but none of them are flawless or infallible…and very few of them get attention from the major media.