Hero to Zero: Armstrong’s ungraceful fall


Kevin Beirne warns against idolising sports starsLast weekend, an interview between Oprah Winfrey and Lance Armstrong was viewed by millions of people around the world. No doubt you know the outcome of that interview; Lance Armstrong, once thought by some to be the greatest athlete ever, admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs to help him win his seven Tour de France titles.

For most of us, the only thing shocking about Armstrong’s admission was that he actually made a confession. The USADA report into Armstrong’s doping, in which it claimed he was the orchestrator of the most sophisticated doping program in the history of sport, has received worldwide coverage since its release a few months ago.

Even before USADA disclosed their findings, there was evidence to suggest that Armstrong had doped his way into the history books. For journalists such as Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, Armstrong’s admission was a confirmation of what they had been telling us since 1999: Armstrong is a cheater and a liar.

But for so many people, Armstrong’s admission has caused a great deal of pain. Millions of people idolised him. He was a textbook sporting fairytale after he came back from the brink of death to defeat cancer and win the most physically-demanding race in sport seven times in a row. Unfortunately, it was too good to be true.

Millions of people were inspired by his story; they went out and bought his book ‘It’s Not About the Bike’ (the title of which has become a punch-line itself) and covered themselves in yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets. He was the poster-boy for cancer recovery, but now all this inspiration feels somewhat hollow.

Armstrong’s recovery from cancer and subsequent dominance of cycling were highly impressive to those who did not suspect any foul play, but how does being talented at a sport automatically make someone a good role model to follow?

Armstrong is certainly not the first (and he most definitely won’t be the last) sports star to be hyped up to a godlike level as the pinnacle of humanity that we should all strive to emulate. Time and time again we build up athletes to be these perfect human beings, and yet we never stop to think that maybe this person is just a good athlete, not necessarily a good person.

With Lance Armstrong, this was half the problem. He had built up a sort of cult of personality which protected him from attacks. He tied his victories so closely to his recovery that any criticism of him immediately became a criticism of those suffering from a horrendous illness.

When asked if he ever took performance enhancing drugs, Armstrong would not hesitate to frame the conversation around his past illness, claiming that he was so close to death that he would never do anything to put his body at risk like that again. Of course, these were all lies to, as he put it himself, “control the narrative”.

Armstrong lied for years, even under oath, about his drug-taking, which is why it is hard to believe anything he said in his interview with Oprah that contradicts the reports of others. For years, Armstrong went as far as to sue anyone who said he wasn’t clean.

When reminded that he sued his former masseuse, Emma O’Reilly, (as well as calling her an alcoholic whore in an attempt to discredit her) he simply laughed and said “To be honest Oprah, we sued so many people, I don’t even… I’m sure we did.”

Armstrong’s delivery, brushing it off so casually, is more suitable to forgetting the sandwiches on a picnic and not to ruining a former friend’s career. In the end, all he cared about was his own career.

It is almost taboo to admit this, but in order to reach the top of your sport, or any field for that matter, you need some sense of ego. People love to laugh at players like Nicklas Bendtner, who has come out and said he believes he is the best footballer in the world despite not even starting for Sunderland last season, but the truth is that confidence plays a huge part in sport.

This is why so many athletes are actually terrible role models and this is why Armstrong did what he did. He took drugs to improve his performance and feed his own ego. He played up the cancer story because it took him from being a sporting hero to being a humanitarian legend. It was all about him, and anyone who got in his way was shoved out of it hard enough to make sure they wouldn’t cross him again.

So does this mean it is time to stop idolising our athletes? Maybe we can finally accept that they aren’t going out on that pitch to beat the other team for us, they are doing it for themselves.

Perhaps it is time we realised that, although there are some good, kind-hearted athletes out there, we should not idolise someone simply because they can swing a club better or kick a ball harder than anyone else.

While this sort of behaviour won’t stop the Lance Armstrongs of the world from cheating to be the best, it may save us from being so blind to the truth when they do.