Lance Armstrong belonged to a rarefied group of individuals. He achieved such a degree of success that he joined an exclusive class of athletes who transcended the sports that they played and became cultural icons. Sports gods, if you will. However, with his recent confession he has joined an entirely different coalition of talented athletes: one of fallen gods and cautionary tales.
Armstrong is far from the first athlete to burst the collective bubble of his or her fan-base. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Alex Rodriguez and countless other famous athletes have let down the lofty expectations of their supporters by taking the steroid shortcut. And that’s not even taking into account the many non-steroid related transgressions which have led athletes into a world of trouble. Pete Rose tarnished his baseball legacy with sports gambling. OJ Simpson’s legendary career at running back lost much of its luster due to his, now infamous, legal issues off the field. Tiger Woods enraged his fans with his unscrupulous behavior. Mike Tyson was one of the best boxers who ever lived, but now is only perceived as a lunatic with an insatiable appetite for Phil Collins’ music and Evander Holyfield’s ear. All of these people were made out to be more than men until they gave the world sobering reminders that underneath all of their wealth, talent, and accolades, they’re merely flesh and blood.
Unfortunately, Armstrong’s case is somewhat unique. He didn’t just disappoint his fans. He violated all of the principles and values upon which he had built his brand and image. He founded his fame on an inspirational message of perseverance in the face of adversity; on the notion that hard work and determination can overcome any odds. Then he chose to cheat and use steroids in order to surmount the odds and obstacles he confronted in his own life. It’s the equivalent of Tiger Woods selling millions of bracelets promoting monogamy prior to his scandal.
Athleticism alone does not amount to a good role model. Professional athletes aren’t heroes by nature. They’re humans.