One of JFK’s more enduring sayings besides “I really dig that blonde who just sang happy birthday to me” was “Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat an orphan”.
This quote seems apropos to the latest Shakesperian-like drama in the sports world, the “mea culpa, alas I must tell the truth” moment for the once superhero-like Lance Armstrong. His imminent fall from grace is sad, particularly for him, but to me it says much more about the culture of sport than it does his character, or lack thereof.
But before I offer my two cents about the Lance Armstrong saga, I want to mention a little bit about his “foil” in this hero’s/anti-hero’s journey – Lebron James.
It is hard to dispute that LeBron James is one of the most talented players ever to grace an NBA court and certainly one of the most competitive. His Herculean feats almost propelled the once hapless Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA championship is his seven years there and in his first year with the Heat, he brought the team from consecutive first round playoff losses to within a game and 3 minutes of winning the NBA title. Yet until 2012, James was referred to as a “choker “because he, despite being one of 12 players to suit up for every game, had yet to lead his team to that coveted ring.
As far as we know, Lebron James did not use performance enhancing drugs, or any other illegal means to raise the level of his game. Yet because he did not win a championship, he was not treated as a champion and instead, maligned by everyone including the fickle fans of Cleveland and Miami.
I fought the urge to criticize Lebron. The man won so many more games than he lost. He resurrected franchises and often singlehandedly won games that seemed bleak at best. Besides, he was not even 27 years old, an age at which most of us mere mortals are still floundering to make a dent in the professional world. Whatever happened to giving credit where credit is due, and believe me, Lebron deserved much more credit than blame
It is for the same reasons that I am reluctant to jump on the Lance bashing bandwagon. Sure he lied, schemed and tarnished both the sport and his legacy. Sure he won an unprecedented 7 consecutive Tour de France titles under unethical pretenses. But is there any American fan of cycling, anyone seduced by the sensationalizing of sport and the record setting frontrunner types who didn’t want to see Lance Armstrong win all those titles?
It was an aphrodisiac, an aphrodisiac made possible by doing whatever it took “to give the people” and his many sponsors exactly what they wanted – a victory. It also made, similar to what Tiger Woods who has done nothing wrong except indulge his prowess for women did for golf, the sport of cycling popular with the masses.
I won’t even get into the particulars of cycling. Needless to say, the Tour de France is a grueling event, one that requires the cyclists to ride over an average of a 100 miles a day for three weeks on steep and windy terrain, in sardine like fashion, and with observers throwing loaves of stale French bread at the non-French participants. Okay perhaps the last statement is a stretch.
If you have read any Greek Mythology, I am sure you a familiar with the term “tragic hero”. Since this is not a mini lesson, I am simply say that the hero eventually falls from his/her heroic perch because of a tragic flaw, often hubris (overwhelming pride). Sure Lance Armstrong had a lot of hubris, perhaps a flawed condition necessary for any champion to remain on top, but in my mind, his tragic flaw was not hubris, but competitiveness. He loved to win. And his legions of adoring fans loved for him to win. Frankly, anything less and no one would have cared.
We live in a day and age where winning at all costs is not just a consideration. It’s a requirement. Lawyers, politicians and investment bankers cheat all the time to get ahead. Why should we expect anything different from star athletes, particularly those who are at the top of their sport?
Perhaps I have jumped on the sympathy bandwagon too quickly, but at the end of the day, I feel compassion for both Lance Armstrong and Lebron James. I feel bad for Lance because he had to win and therefore felt the need to cheat to ensure victory. I feel bad for Lebron because he too is expected to win all the time, but he does not entirely control the outcome nor is perpetual championships a realistic expectation.
Getting back to literature, we start to feel sympathy for the tragic hero when their humanity is exposed. Lance Armstrong and Lebron James despite their greatness, are flawed people like the rest of us. Let them enjoy the highs and lows of competition, and not vilify them for simply trying to give the people what they expect.