When the International Cycling Union decided to uphold the sanctions against Lance Armstrong yesterday, it did not simply revoke his seven Tour de France titles. The Cycling Union brought down an American icon of durability and strength. In the process, I fear we have all become just a bit more cynical and apathetic.
Americans often use martial language when describing diseases. Armstrong didn’t just “get better”; he “fought” cancer. He engaged in a multi-year “battle” and he emerged “victorious.” His subsequent seven straight Tour de France titles were a marker of how successful, how total, that victory was. Since ancient times, athleticism has served as a sort of proxy for military prowess. Armstrong’s cycling success thus became a sort of double military victory, defeating both a vicious disease and talented competitors.
Armstrong represented something larger than life, a symbol for overcoming obstacles, both human and natural. And when he lent his name and face to companies and charitable organizations, money and talent flowed in response. Since 2004, Armstrong’s foundation has sold 80 million of its trademark Livestrong bracelets. But now, once again a heroic image has been shattered, and what we thought was super-human excellence has revealed itself to be dope and lies, fraud and fake.
We live in a world increasingly devoid of heroes. Those of us who watched this year’s presidential debates were treated to snark-fests and battles of sound-bites. There is no room for a president to adopt an elevated position of detached dialogue; the American people want him rolling in the mud with an energetic adversary.
Universities, in particular, lead the push to tear down heroes. In our classes, we are taught to deconstruct and problematize the heroism of our greatest leaders. We seem unable to resist drawing attention to Churchill’s arrogance, Jefferson’s slave-ownership and King’s infidelity. At times, it seems as if the primary purpose of the modern academy is to explode our noblest mythologies.
But in the long run, are these constant reminders of our heroes’ imperfections and vices good for us?
The question seems bizarre even to pose. After all, when looking at any specific example, the rightness of the myth-busting seems manifest. Certainly, the United States anti-doping agency should investigate athletes and punish cheaters. Certainly, our public officials should be held accountable and challenged on their beliefs without the protection of their office’s mystique. And certainly, our universities should insist on intellectual openness and our scholars should investigate all avenues that seem to advance the cause of knowledge.
But concentrating on the specifics allows us to miss, and miss assessing, the broader phenomenon. And it is the broader phenomenon that is so disturbing. Entire generations are growing up patting themselves on the back despite their failures, made complacent by the knowledge that “we are all human.” But comfort can become a crutch, and absent models of perfection and greatness, we resign ourselves to our own foibles. Knowing that no one is truly great, we try for the appearance of success rather than the real thing. Aspiration has been replaced with ambition.
Cynicism sets in. Even when individuals act from principle, we insist on digging deeper. And when we find nothing through digging, we make it up. We are too thoroughly trained in the search for private interests to acknowledge the possibility of altruism. Every politician must be a new Nixon, every act of U.S. military intervention must be an attempt to assert our hegemony and every great intellect must be a hypocrite. This suspicion can be crippling to our leaders and a death-knell for courageous action. The best way to avoid charges of being a fraud or despot is to do nothing at all — and frequently, I worry that this is where we are headed.
Most of us were not impacted personally by Armstrong’s victories, nor will we obsess over his meteoric demise. Some of us barely knew his name. But the possibility of human greatness — of any kind — is something that diffuses beyond the specific case. The very fact that there was such a person that overcame cancer, performed physically at an unheard-of level and devoted tremendous energy to charity work can inspire awe and impel action. And so we ought to mourn this world, a world in which that hero no longer exists.
Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .