Glorifying our athletes

I remember the day Lance Armstrong admitted to doping. I remember because I wanted to tear off my Livestrong bracelet – the one I’d been wearing for more than seven years – and snip it into a million pieces. For some reason, his betrayal felt deeply personal.

Many citizens of South Africa and the global community experienced a similar reaction after learning of Oscar Pistorius’ murder charge. The news that the inspiring sprinter had killed his girlfriend shook millions who put faith in the athlete. Pistorius’ road to the Olympics began when he petitioned the South African Olympic Committee to allow him to participate in the able-bodied Olympics, maintaining that his prosthetics gave him no distinct advantage while racing.

In 2012, Pistorius became the first double leg amputee to participate in an able-bodied Olympics, running in the men’s 400-meter run and the 4×400-meter relay. In addition to a rigorous competition schedule, Pistorius actively supported the Mineseeker Foundation, a charity that raises awareness for land mine victims and provides prosthetics for victims.

Armstrong’s name is no less well-known, even to those outside the cycling world. After a diagnosis of testicular cancer that spread to his brain and lungs, Armstrong underwent extensive chemotherapy. Soon after remission, he founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation and went on to win the Tour de France seven times in a row.

Both Armstrong and Pistorius became symbols of resilience in their arenas. They overcame tremendous obstacles and inspired millions of people, and for that, the world glorified their existence. Yet, both fell.

This seems to be a common theme today: Raise someone to heroic status, and watch him or her fall. One of the many political cartoons about Armstrong ran in the Star Tribune not long after his admission to using performance-enhancing stimulants. In the cartoon, Armstrong was riding a bike, decked out in Livestrong attire and pulling a small wagon of his medals. The question remains for both Armstrong and Pistorius: Will these scandals negate the good they have done?

The outlook certainly seems bleak. When someone searches “Lance Armstrong” or “Oscar Pistorius” on the Internet and the first search topics are “doping” and “dead girlfriend,” one can be sure the legacy will be tainted. The longevity of the articles and the pages of arguments of those defending their heroes and those condemning them will always remain archived somewhere.

In this case, we might step back and reconsider the concept of athletes as heroes. True, they exhibit mental ferocity and physical strength beyond the scope of the average person’s capabilities. Yet their strengths also expose weaknesses in daunting places: Armstrong fell victim to a doping system that provided the only way to succeed on a professional level. Pistorius’ assault and petty criminal charges question his status as a representative of South Africa.

The fact that these men cemented their pedestals in the world only paved the way for their downfalls. Parents saw them as role models for their children. Children were captivated by men like Pistorius and remembered the name “Armstrong” when they flaunted their Livestrong bracelets.

People fall short of their potential every day, yet their so-called “everyday mistakes” on a small scale never shock us so much as the accumulation of events on a large scale. In reality, we have no idea how we might act in such a situation. Our disillusionment suggests that we are allowed to be fallible, but our heroes aren’t.

We all want to believe that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary feats. Yet we fail to remember that within every person is the capacity to fall from grace. The world may have lost hope in Armstrong and Pistorius, but hopefully it will recover to place its reverence in an idea rather than a person who embodies this idea.