Sports | Story over substance

Fallen sports idols and the risks of athlete glorification

Lance Armstrong, perhaps the most revered athlete of the 2000s, is still one of the most famous athletes in the world. In 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, which rapidly spread to his lungs, abdomen, and brain, forcing him to retire from his burgeoning cycling career. His doctor, upon diagnosis, gave him a less than 40 per cent chance to live. After extensive chemotherapy and surgery, Armstrong was eventually cured and, remarkably, returned to cycling better than he had ever been prior to his illness. Starting in 1999, he won seven straight Tour de France races, cycling’s most prestigious event, and generally dominated men’s cycling.

Armstrong’s incredible success was inspiring to many battling through their own illnesses, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation (who could forget those yellow Livestrong bracelets?) has raised more than $470 million for cancer research and support since its creation in 1997. Simply put, Armstrong was an idol, a poster boy for cancer survivors, athletic excellence, and celebrity philanthropy alike.

When blood doping and performance enhancing drug  (PED) allegations emerged against Armstrong in 2004, it was as though the cloud had finally caught up with his silver lining of a career. Armstrong has been accused of using PEDs – such as steroids or testosterone – and chemically altering his blood supply since he returned from his illness. Armstrong continued to test negatively for PEDs during his career, and was never caught blood doping, protecting his legacy while he was competing. Since his 2011 retirement, though, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has brought forward charges that Armstrong used PEDs and altered his blood supply. On August 23, Armstrong, while not admitting guilt, gave up his legal battle against the USADA, stripping him of his seven Tour de France titles and banning him from most sanctioned cycling events. Since then, Radioshack and Nike have dropped Armstrong as a sponsor, both claiming they could not have Armstrong represent them based on the evidence produced by the USADA.

Strangely enough, in the days that followed Armstrong’s dropping of the case, donations to Armstrong’s charity increased by 30 per cent. Armstrong wasn’t losing support because of the charges; his supporters were rallying behind him. The arguments in his favour took several forms: that everyone else was cheating at the same time (many of Armstrong’s main competitors have been caught and suspended from cycling for PED usage), that the charges weren’t ever put through an official court of law (Armstrong gave up that process), and that Armstrong’s return from cancer makes his usage more excusable, among others.

As the allegations have become more and more specific, and as the evidence piles up against him, advertisers who might otherwise have used Armstrong’s image have continued to balk at the prospect. Many Lance Armstrong supporters, however, are hanging tough, ever faithful to their idol. Armstrong’s story, for them, transcends the specific – they are willing to excuse the allegations for a number of reasons, but mostly because they want to believe in a story as great as his. In the face of a narrative this powerful, details of indiscretions can be ignored or forgiven.

For anyone familiar with the public’s typical treatment of athletes caught doping, this seems inconsistent. Barry Bonds, baseball’s all-time leader in home runs, spent the last years of his career being virulently booed by opposing fans for his use of PEDs. The same occurred with suspected cheaters Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Other players caught using steroids in any sport during the last 15 years have been similarly vilified. But Armstrong has escaped this sort of widespread repudiation because his inspiring story has made him, to many, an idol without reproach.

It’s a dangerous concept: that a sports idol’s achievements, that their myth, should be held above who they are and what they’ve done. Fans easily grow starry-eyed over the inspirational figure, while losing sight of the inherently flawed person. The same thing happened to Joe Paterno. After being fired from his position as head coach of the Penn State football team following reports that he had failed to notify authorities of a report he’d received stating that Jerry Sandusky was raping a child in a Penn State athletic facility, Penn State students flooded the streets of Happy Valley, Pennsylvania in protest. Paterno, a father figure to the entire university, beloved equally by faculty, students, and athletes, took a spectacular fall from grace. The confusion, rage, and sadness that swept the Penn State campus as a result of his horrible mistake are representative of the cognitive dissonance experienced by all fans whose idols let them down.

Athletes are easily made into idols; their achievements on the field or court are achievements that more than 99 per cent of the world cannot match. Many fans spend their childhoods dreaming of having their fame, their success, their superhuman ability. They want to be swept up in a narrative that reassures their belief in the fundamental purity of sport – that hard work is rewarded, that determination can overcome nearly anything, and that our athletes and our sports represent the best of us, the best of our ability and character as humans. It’s a comforting narrative, but it masks an ugly truth.  When thinking about athletes, what we need more than anything is a reality check. Their success in their sport does not excuse or erase their behaviour in life.

This is not to suggest we all turn cynical and repudiate our athletes, constantly questioning their success. It is just a reminder: there are no heroes, no idols without fault, and sports are perhaps the last place where people needlessly cling to them.

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