Growing up, Lance Armstrong only figured in my mind as a concept, a cultural icon who represented human triumph against all odds. I didn’t (and don’t) follow cycling, the Tour de France – or any sport for that matter – so I was surprised to find myself so upset upon hearing of Armstrong’s demise – his crucifixion documented in every news broadcast.
There’s a touch of Shakespearean tragedy to the whole situation, which I’m really connecting with. Here is a man who became so much bigger than himself. You used to hear the name ‘Lance Armstrong’ and think ‘hero’, ‘cancer survivor’. As I write, his seven consecutive yellow jerseys and (hugely successful) landmark charity foundation Livestrong, is prefaced with his recent lifetime ban and stripping of titles.
It seems the angry mob has descended, and somewhere along the way we’ve lost a sense of perspective. Behind the myth is a man, albeit a flawed man who deceived and disappointed his supporters. It’s a mistake lesser athletes have made, and it seems to me that this particular doping scandal has only caused such furore because he cheated, actually won, and got away with it for 16 years.
With the exception of those clinging to an irrational belief in the deified cyclist, the world has lost faith, and has responded with anger. With no intention of defending his actions, I’d just like to ask if our anger and surprise is reasonable? It’s as if Armstrong has been punished and publicly shamed for exposing the reality of human limitation – an admission that directly contradicts the defiant, unstoppable image he’s created. What he managed to achieve seemed impossible – especially given his diagnosis of brain, lung and testicular cancer in 1996 – and, as it turns out, it was.
Yes, Armstrong deserved what he got – especially given the scale of the doping scandal, which involved his whole team – but I don’t think it’s too controversial a suggestion that we restore some amount of empathy for this man. Admittedly, this can be difficult given his demeanour in interviews and public statements, but put in his position, what would you do?
We expect athletes to constantly break records, and reward them with absurd amounts of money for fulfilling that role. According to a Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) report earlier this year, ‘the average annual salary of a rider with a UCI ProTeam has risen from €190,000 [~ $240,000] in 2009 to €264,000 [~ $330,000] in 2012. The winner of the Tour de France earns upwards of €450,000 [~ $560,000]; Lance Armstrong’s combined earnings from the Tour de France are estimated at $3.72 million. How many of us could resist that temptation?
I could make a statement about the 21st century’s media-heavy, digitised and profitable cult of celebrity, but that would be pointless: the execution of this public figure was inevitable by virtue of the fact that he is a public figure. I’m just having a little trouble, grappling with the lack of human kindness extended by the media toward a real person.
The crux of the problem is our inability to separate the legend of Lance Armstrong and what he represents to our culture, from Armstrong as a man – complex and flawed like the rest of us. I can understand where all this anger is coming from, but I think we need to account for our own part in it. We put an immense amount of pressure on our athletes, and perhaps it’s time we rethink our relationship with sport and the notion of athletic excellence. We can’t continue to treat our sports heroes as infallible, superhuman – this simply allows us to tear them down when they disappoint.
Christopher Fieldus is an editorial assistant at Kill Your Darlings. He is a freelance theatre reviewer, published on samesame.com.au, and Head Editor of Mary Journal.