When I was growing up, I spent a large part of my summers glued to the chair in front of the TV, anxious to catch up on all the quality American programming I missed during the school year. My interests were confined mostly to Nickelodeon, when it had “Legends of the Hidden Temple,” “All That” and “Kenan and Kel”—back when it was actually, you know, good. Occasionally, my focus would stray to the Tour de France, and I would end up watching a stage or two. This wasn’t because of any great love for cycling or the French countryside, but because I had heard about this guy named Lance Armstrong who had beaten cancer and then came back to win the Tour again and again. I watched the Tour to watch him dominate. He was an inspiring figure. He was someone to look up to.
This week, Armstrong’s contract with Nike, which had lasted more than a decade, was terminated. (Nike is actually only one of over half a dozen sponsors that have dropped Armstrong in the past week.) Additionally, Armstrong stepped down as the chair of Livestrong, the cancer foundation that has raised about half a billion dollars for cancer research. His departure came in the wake of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s disclosure of evidence implicating Armstrong in the use of performance enhancing drugs during all seven of the Tours that he won. Although Armstrong denies ever having cheated, he has already been stripped of his Tour titles and his name has joined the lengthy and ignominious list of professional cyclists who used drugs to get ahead in their sport. One example of how prevalent cheating is in cycling: Tour officials are unsure which racers they can present Armstrong’s vacated titles to, as nearly all of the seven runners-up to Armstrong during his championship run had inspired suspicions of drug scandals of their own.
To be honest, I can’t say I was surprised. In the past few years, I’ve seen numerous professional athletes exposed as cheaters. To say that the use of performance enhancing drugs isn’t a part of our sports culture is to deny the reality of the world we live in. Heroes become villains overnight. Legacies become tarnished forever.
As a kid, I never really expected my heroes to let me down. The athletes I saw on TV and the stars that I saw in movies seemed like the coolest people ever. I always had the expectation that they were too noble, too skilled, too good to fall victim to the temptations and flaws that undermine normal people. As time passed and I grew older, that expectation faded into a hope that they wouldn’t disappoint me, even though I had a nagging fear that they eventually would.
My favorite athlete growing up was Michael Jordan, a choice I’m sure was shared by many other children of the ’90s. I knew he didn’t have the greatest personality, but I was willing to overlook it because of his incredible, inimitable skills. But when he used his Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech as an opportunity to call out everyone who had ever wronged him, mock his own children for their inability to live up to his legend and expose his insatiable ego to the world, the nagging fear in my mind was realized. His transcendence on the basketball court was no longer enough to hide his personal shortcomings.
I hoped that Armstrong would be different. I hoped that this man who had suffered from cancer was actually able to be a clean champion in arguably the dirtiest sport in the world. It wasn’t easy to accept the truth that finally emerged, but there was no point in denying it either. It’s true that he has made an undeniable impact in the fight against cancer, but it’s also true that his efforts were due in part to things other than his own blood, sweat and tears.
Luckily, my heroes aren’t limited to the people I read about on ESPN or watch on “SportsCenter.” I try my best not to forget about the people that make my life better on a daily basis just by being who they are, like my parents, my siblings and my friends. Those are the types of people worth looking up to, and luckily we all have them in our lives, despite what we may occasionally think. Our families and friends and other normal, unassuming people we encounter who do great things are just as worthy of being put on the pedestals that athletes and celebrities currently occupy, if not more so. Lance Armstrong let a lot of people down, including me. But maybe this was just another sign that it’s time to stop looking to people like him to be our heroes. As kids, we didn’t know any better than to watch him race and marvel without questioning how he did it. Now, as adults, we have the power to make sure that the people that we look up to actually deserve our admiration.
Jordan Siedell is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Friday. You can follow Jordan on Twitter @JSiedell.