Floyd Landis' claims that Lance Armstrong engaged in sports doping has put one of America's most celebrated athletes under the microscope. But the most intriguing story may be how his millions of fans react if they discover that their hero has feet of clay.
Most of the celebrated athletes investigated for sports doping in the last several years have been men and women with the usual human flaws. Arrogant is a good word to describe both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and while both had fans, they had a comparable if not greater number of detractors. Neither of them stepped beyond their sport in a major effort to do good deeds for their fellow man.
Lance Armstrong is that once-in-a-generation superstar whose life journey borders on the mythic. At 25, testicular cancer had him in its grip, having spread to his brain, abdomen, and lungs. Doctors gave him less than a 50/50 chance of survival. In late 1996, he underwent a brutal cocktail of drugs and chemotherapy for treatment. Miraculously, he survived, and a little more than a year later was cancer free and back riding.
Roughly eighteen months after his last chemotherapy treatment, Armstrong claimed his first Tour de France victory. That's the stuff of legend, and as he kept winning year after year, (seven straight) he became an inspiration to those fighting cancer everywhere. He went on to launch The Lance Armstrong Foundation aka LIVESTRONG, an organization designed to "empower the cancer community to address the unmet needs of cancer survivors."
I can't imagine what Armstrong has faced. Only the men and women who have stared down cancer and other life threatening diseases -- and survived - can comprehend the inner strength it takes to overcome the physical, mental and emotional hurdles.
But now thousands of these people may need to face a jarring reality: The very real possibility that on another level - wholly unrelated to cancer - Armstrong may be less than heroic.
Many diehard fans stubbornly insist that Armstrong is beyond reproach, and always will be. They call the cyclist a hero to all those who have battled cancer, and warn writers to "Leave him the hell alone." On the other end of the spectrum are those who suggest that if the allegations against Armstrong are proven, his long and highly visible efforts to hold himself up as role model and inspiration to millions fighting cancer will be "inexcusable."
This is a story that raises the age-old questions of why we need heroes, and what we do when we find that they have failed to live up to our ideals. Heroes give us lofty aspirations and a sense of purpose. They are mothers or fathers that we strive to emulate and make proud. They are teachers or coaches who push us beyond the possible. They are artists, scientists, soldiers, and even politicians and other leaders who show us how with ambition, talent, and sweat, we can accomplish the unthinkable.
The worlds' most important heroes are real people, the ones who influence us in our everyday lives. I have encountered a few; a vibrant teacher in her fifties who inspired me to read widely, and an illustrator turned artist who showed me the value of persistence, of the dogged small steps that can add up to achievement.
But it's natural for all of us to hold up public figures, celebrities, and legends. As a journalist, I have had the rare opportunity to meet and even run with some of the greatest sprinters in history. I still treasure the memory of those precious few workouts, the chance to watch and feel the elegance and power of these marvelous performers. But over time, I learned things about these men and women that a part of me wished I'd never known. Some had clearly doped and there were others who I began to doubt.
That's the uncomfortable position some fervent fans of Lance Armstrong may soon find themselves -- doubting the legitimacy of not just any hero but the man who may have given them that extra dose of courage to fight a battle between life and death.
We all need heroes. Sometimes we need new ones.
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