Who is Lance Armstrong?
For several years, we thought we knew the answer to this question. Armstrong was a seven-time Tour de France champion, a cancer survivor, and a humanitarian who used his influence to raise awareness and funding for cancer research through his Livestrong Foundation.
Armstrong was an inspirational figure for many. He had a great story that provided hope for thousands who were fighting their own cancer battles. Indeed, if there was ever someone who fit the description of a hero, it was Armstrong. He had the the story, the image, and the passion that made us all support him.
Unfortunately, the image we have of Armstrong has been destroyed in recent weeks. The Armstrong we know today is not the Armstrong we want to know. It is the story of an athlete who made the choice to use performance-enhancing drugs in order to win. It is the story of a man who made the decision to deceive the American public, and the world, about his drug use. It is the story of a man who allegedly stopped at nothing to protect his image, even if it meant harming the careers of others.
Armstrong is not the person we thought he was. He has joined a growing list of athletes who have seen their reputations damaged due to various indiscretions. Athletes such as Barry Bonds (alleged steroid use), Roger Clemens (alleged steroid use), Mark McGwire (admitted steroid use), and Tiger Woods (extramarital affairs) have each seen their status as cultural heroes tarnished when we learned that their lives didn’t agree with the image we had of them.
Admittedly, Armstrong’s fall is the most shocking, because his image was built around his story and the hope it gave to others. To be honest, Armstrong has let us down. We never expected Armstrong would be the one to fall, even after all the allegations and accusations from teammates and people who knew him.
I believe Armstrong’s admission of using performance-enhancing drugs provides an opportunity for reflection on our love of sports. We have an unhealthy obsession with sports in America. There is nothing wrong with sports. I’m a huge fan of athletics, especially my beloved West Virginia Mountaineers. However, sometimes our love of sports and the athletes who play them can enter into idolatry.
This happens when we allow ourselves to be entirely immersed in the sport and the athlete we follow. We allow their successes and failures to determine much about our lives. In all honesty, we sometimes believe that our favorite athlete will always make that game-winning shot, do the right thing, and never let us down. If only that were always the case.
In so many ways, we have made athletes to be, not just our heroes worthy of admiration and respect, but athletic gods whom we worship. When we do this, we promote the image of the athlete (and hero) that is in agreement with the ideal story we want to be made known. Any story that does not fit our ideal is immediately questioned.
That is why Armstrong’s fall is both heartbreaking and frustrating. It is heartbreaking in that we have yet another tale of a fallen hero, another hero who wasn’t what we wanted him to be. Yet, it is frustrating as well, because we were told for years that Armstrong was not telling us the truth. We refused to believe Armstrong would use performance-enhancing drugs or push others around. The image we had of Armstrong had no room for someone who has faults, who has made some mistakes, and who has now started to repent of those actions.
We want our heroes to be perfect. They can’t be. They are like us: humans capable of doing immeasurable good and unfortunate harm, who are in need of God’s grace and guidance. When we begin to ascribe ideal qualities to our favorite athletes and heroes, then we have entered a dangerous position of seeing them as more than than they are.
It is a fine line between admiring an athlete and idolizing them. The line cannot be easily defined and will vary from person to person. We may not be able to know when one has moved from admiration to idolization, but, as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart might say, we’ll “know it when we see it.”
The fall of athletes like Armstrong calls us to examine where our line is by asking some questions. How do we view our favorite athlete? How much influence do they have in our lives? Have we created an ideal picture of them in our minds?
Athletes should be admired, but stories like Armstrong’s remind us of the danger when our admiration crosses into idolization.