UpFront/Special | Jan 23, 2013 | 15867 views

After Lance Armstrong, We Don't Need Another Hero

True, Armstrong is damned and so should he be. However, the key question all of us should ask is whether he would have become the God that he became without our active connivance?
After Lance Armstrong, We Don't Need Another Hero
Image: Alberto Muschette / Reuters
True, Armstrong is damned and so should he be


few months back, I wrote a column (hyper-link to earlier story soon after the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published its report on Lance Armstrong. During the last two days, I have been watching the Lance –Oprah show. The follow up shows on CNN, BBC and the online space also attracted my interest. Being an avid student of sociology and psychology, my mind went into overdrive, as I tried to make sense of this human and social tragic-drama.

True, Armstrong is damned and so should he be. However, the key question all of us should ask is whether he would have become the God that he became without our active connivance? Why did we refuse to pay heed to David Walsh, the Irish journalist who authored LA-Confidential, a book that cast the spotlight for the first time on Amstrong’s doping methods? Why did Walsh wage a lonely battle to prick our God obsession?

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Is the collective response that we see in some way an expression of our own shame and our own fall from grace in our minds? Lance’s fall from grace is akin to what Ben Johnson and Marlene Ottey went through. But there’s no ground to compare him to O.J. Simpson. After all, he did not kill anyone. He is no worse than Kenneth Lay or Skilling. So why are we reacting to him with a frenzy that child abusers, murderers and rapists evince?

 And why is no one asking questions of the head of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world’s cycling governing body? Exactly the same thing happened after the Ben Johnson doping saga at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. No one asked or probed the role of International Association of Athletics Federations, the world’s governing body for track and field athletics, and International Olympic Association (IOA).

Richard Moore in his book “The Dirtiest Race In History” chronicles the tacit complicity of Niebiolo Primo, the then IAAF President and Juan Antonio Samaranch, the then IOA President, in presiding over the culture of performance enhancing drugs in athletics and Olympic sports, by not actively supporting drug testing. They possibly feared that there would be a flight of dollars that the sports Gods brought into the sport. This led to the next 20 years of sports Kings and Queens being enthroned, only to be dethroned later.

 Look at the pattern. Jesse Owens set a new benchmark in 1936 with his 100 meter run in 10.10 seconds. The world record lasted till 1968, when Jim Hines bettered it in 9.99 seconds. Over the next 34 years from 1968 to 2002, that record remained intact till Tim Montgomery clocked 9.78 seconds. As it turned out, he was caught for doping. By 2008, however, the record had tumbled down to 9.58 seconds and yet no one questioned it.

 Are we inclined to believe fairy tales and miracles even when the basic facts stare at us? The global media may be on a witch hunt now, but why did it choose to ignore the evidence put up by David Walsh, even after Lance’s mates, especially Andreu, had already blown the whistle? This also reminds me of the way our corporations sometimes deal with whistle blowers when they raise uncomfortable truths about larger-than-life business leaders. Or the way that media prefers to skirt controversial issues that concern pin-up corporations.

Now there’s a collective catharsis and atonement. Ever wondered why? There’s a bit of Lance in all of us. “We all have a face that we hide away forever. We share so many secrets. There are some we never tell.” Remember this Billy Joel song from The Stranger album? I feel sick in my stomach when corporate leaders hector us on values and ethics. Much worse is when they use their PR machinery to build themselves up as paragons of virtue. And the media willingly plays along. Till the Ramalinga Raju moment or the Lance moment strikes. That’s when the media starts to spit venom, and cover up their gullibility.

 We are often told that greed is bad, we are also told that transparency is a virtue, even more that humility is the defining character of leadership and to top it all that winners do not cheat – not even the small many lies.

 Yet as we’ve discovered time and again, no one is infallible. So to attach a God-like halo to anyone is an exercise in self-delusion. It’s time we learnt that lesson.

 The quest for higher order values and integrity in professional, public and private lives will, of course, continue. But that shouldn’t deter us from questioning our heroes. Scepticism goes a long way in preventing us from turning our heroes into someone larger-than-life.

 So next time when you see anyone presenting himself as one, remember to stop, examine and question our unconditional adulation and trust. Let’s not foist them into a Godly position just because they have excelled in one human attribute. And by the same token, let’s not damn every attribute in a fellow human, because he failed miserably in one.

 If Yudhisthira could descend to the dust with his “Ashvathama Hatha Kunjalaha (“Ashvathama is dead, adding the elephant in a whisper) to vanquish Dhrona – advised and aided by Krishna himself, the next time we damn anyone, let us start with ourselves.

 Lance is just only one of the many “hero myths” we continue to create for ourselves. Perhaps they are the heroes that we couldn’t be.

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Comments (12)
Frank King Jan 25, 2013
When I think about what happened to Lance, my mind goes to Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods and even Jim Bakker (remember him?). Together, they inspired me to write this essay:
K.ramkumar Jan 25, 2013

You make a good point. I agree with you that we need people who inspire us. The problem is not with people like Sachin or Dravid. They never asked us to call them or teat them as Gods. It is our obsession to discover the god like perfect human and associate with that thought that makes us hero worship. Few like Sachin and Dravid are grounded and refuse to get this to their head and conduct their lives with aplomb and do not over reach themselves. But most others let this get to their heads. they know that the story is intact till they keep this perfect human and all achieving Human myth alive. When they discover that it is difficult they start doing inappropriate things including cheating to keep the prtetence up. This is what Lance Armstrong confessed in his interview with Oprah. So we need peole who inspire us and give us hope but we can do without this personification of good in all and the super human who can achieve the unachievable. We are as fans are also cruel. The very same people whom we proped up we push them down to the dirt and make them the most abominable person, because he got found out. Who then will punish us for playing him up and also for being the catalyst which made him do the unacceptable things. Is'nt it this fear of us treating them badly if they stop being super humans which make many adopt unfair and questionable means? That is the crux of the article.
Arun Iyer Jan 25, 2013
Again the theory of karma prevails you sow so you reap...every action will bear d fruits sweet or sour....
Response to Arun Iyer:
R Madhukar Jan 25, 2013
This is similar to the Marion Jones episode where she won 7 medals at Sydney Olympics 2000. However the article brings about how to treat our super humans on their feat and susequently reversed. Good case.
Ron M Jan 24, 2013
Sorry folks, I hv a slightly different take on this. To my mind we do need new heroes/ Gods.
We desperately need guys that we can look up to and whom we feel are ideal, whom we aspire to be.

As it is said Hope springs eternal....there is in any case so much despondency, that without anyone or anything to look up to most people will not want to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The article does make a good case
Anu Kurian Jan 24, 2013
You know what this reminds me of: The reluctance of our cricket team to submit to dope tests due to "security concerns". I'm amazed that Sachin Tendulkar, whom most of India revers as God and can't take the slightest criticism, is the one who has been most critical of it. If BCCI didn't have as much money as it did, maybe...
Response to Anu Kurian:
Arun Iyer Jan 25, 2013
absolutely cent percent true....
Sharad Saxena Jan 24, 2013
By criticizing larger than life figures on their moral misdemeanours many people get an opportunity to ride a high moral ground for a while in public. For example Bill Clinton's admission made him a subject of derision for so many. In my view every one has a temptation to cheat albeit in varying degrees. In the recent Mumbai Marathon, which I ran, we were discussing, if it were not for RFID tag based tracking of timings at various turns, a few would have crossed the divider and moved to the other side.
Arun Raman Jan 24, 2013
I am rewriting one of the paragraphs

Are we inclined to believe fairy tales and miracles even when the basic facts stare at us? The global media may be on a witch hunt now, but why did it choose to ignore the evidence put up by David Walsh, even after Lance'€™s mates, especially Andreu, had already blown the whistle? This also reminds me of the way our corporations sometimes deal with whistle blowers when they raise uncomfortable truths about larger-than-life business leaders. In most organizations, it is also said that the person in awe by all (the all powerful) is seldom challenged, in fact it may be politically incorrect to do so and minor mistakes are then ignored. The thin line from where these minor mistakes become major is the crux. But even then its fine as the halo effect remains. As organisations and in many cases fan clubs which support celebrities are powerful, it is seldom fine to give a contrarian view.
Gurudutt D Jan 23, 2013
I am not sure after reading thsi article -- I will think the Same about Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid -- Rather for the fact even Federer / Nadal -- It seems that we people are happy in creating False prophets in our lives
Sudhakar Jan 23, 2013
Why is Usain bolt's record being dragged into the debate ? Are we going to question Messi and Ronaldo as well...

I liked the previous article of yours... but not this one..
Response to Sudhakar:
K.ramkumar Jan 23, 2013
Dear Sudakar

Thanks for posting your comment. Thanks for saying that you liked my earlier article. If you read the article carefully, I am questioning our hero adulation be it Usain or Messi or Ronoldo. Why should we not question Usain? Pl read the book "The Dirtiest Race in History" by Richard Moore, where in he chronicles the sordid history of performance enhancing Drugs in atheletics. He presents evidence even about Carl Lewis from the info that has now been made public. He tested positive in the US olympic trials according to this now unclassified report. I do not know whether Usain is posting timings assisted by Performance enhancing drugs. But there is no harm in presenting data which appears miraculous ala Lance or Ben Johnson or Marliene Ottey or Diego Maradona or Shane Warne. We may argue that the last last 2 were not using drugs for performance enhancement but they neverthe less used it. If we do not become skeptical about some of our heroes we will regret our misplaced trust like I am and many others are doing now about lance Armstrong. This is not to say that every performance is ro be suspected. But time, ability and trend defieying performance whether in sports or business or in life requires a closer examination. I guess that it is our sometimes blind and unquestioning acceptance and adulation which pushes people like Lance to keep the pretence up by unfair means. Is itthen not equally unfair for all of us to then hang these people whom we all built up with unquestioning hero worship. So in conclusion I want to believe and wish that Usain is clean because I am as much his fan. But I will not do so without being slightly skeptical or without a question on my lip saying it looks too good to be true? I will do the same about any miraculous and too good to believe Business performance or a business leader who appears to be too good to believe.
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