A few months back, I wrote a column (hyper-link to earlier story https://www.forbesindia.com/article/comment/unlearning-what-lance-armstrong-taught-us/33957/1) soon after the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published its report on Lance Armstrong. During the last two days, I have been watching the Lance –Oprah show. The follow up shows on CNN, BBC and the online space also attracted my interest. Being an avid student of sociology and psychology, my mind went into overdrive, as I tried to make sense of this human and social tragic-drama.
True, Armstrong is damned and so should he be. However, the key question all of us should ask is whether he would have become the God that he became without our active connivance? Why did we refuse to pay heed to David Walsh, the Irish journalist who authored LA-Confidential, a book that cast the spotlight for the first time on Amstrong’s doping methods? Why did Walsh wage a lonely battle to prick our God obsession?
Is the collective response that we see in some way an expression of our own shame and our own fall from grace in our minds? Lance’s fall from grace is akin to what Ben Johnson and Marlene Ottey went through. But there’s no ground to compare him to O.J. Simpson. After all, he did not kill anyone. He is no worse than Kenneth Lay or Skilling. So why are we reacting to him with a frenzy that child abusers, murderers and rapists evince?
And why is no one asking questions of the head of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world’s cycling governing body? Exactly the same thing happened after the Ben Johnson doping saga at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. No one asked or probed the role of International Association of Athletics Federations, the world’s governing body for track and field athletics, and International Olympic Association (IOA).
Richard Moore in his book “The Dirtiest Race In History” chronicles the tacit complicity of Niebiolo Primo, the then IAAF President and Juan Antonio Samaranch, the then IOA President, in presiding over the culture of performance enhancing drugs in athletics and Olympic sports, by not actively supporting drug testing. They possibly feared that there would be a flight of dollars that the sports Gods brought into the sport. This led to the next 20 years of sports Kings and Queens being enthroned, only to be dethroned later.
Look at the pattern. Jesse Owens set a new benchmark in 1936 with his 100 meter run in 10.10 seconds. The world record lasted till 1968, when Jim Hines bettered it in 9.99 seconds. Over the next 34 years from 1968 to 2002, that record remained intact till Tim Montgomery clocked 9.78 seconds. As it turned out, he was caught for doping. By 2008, however, the record had tumbled down to 9.58 seconds and yet no one questioned it.
Are we inclined to believe fairy tales and miracles even when the basic facts stare at us? The global media may be on a witch hunt now, but why did it choose to ignore the evidence put up by David Walsh, even after Lance’s mates, especially Andreu, had already blown the whistle? This also reminds me of the way our corporations sometimes deal with whistle blowers when they raise uncomfortable truths about larger-than-life business leaders. Or the way that media prefers to skirt controversial issues that concern pin-up corporations.
Now there’s a collective catharsis and atonement. Ever wondered why? There’s a bit of Lance in all of us. “We all have a face that we hide away forever. We share so many secrets. There are some we never tell.” Remember this Billy Joel song from The Stranger album? I feel sick in my stomach when corporate leaders hector us on values and ethics. Much worse is when they use their PR machinery to build themselves up as paragons of virtue. And the media willingly plays along. Till the Ramalinga Raju moment or the Lance moment strikes. That’s when the media starts to spit venom, and cover up their gullibility.
We are often told that greed is bad, we are also told that transparency is a virtue, even more that humility is the defining character of leadership and to top it all that winners do not cheat – not even the small many lies.
Yet as we’ve discovered time and again, no one is infallible. So to attach a God-like halo to anyone is an exercise in self-delusion. It’s time we learnt that lesson.
The quest for higher order values and integrity in professional, public and private lives will, of course, continue. But that shouldn’t deter us from questioning our heroes. Scepticism goes a long way in preventing us from turning our heroes into someone larger-than-life.
So next time when you see anyone presenting himself as one, remember to stop, examine and question our unconditional adulation and trust. Let’s not foist them into a Godly position just because they have excelled in one human attribute. And by the same token, let’s not damn every attribute in a fellow human, because he failed miserably in one.
If Yudhisthira could descend to the dust with his “Ashvathama Hatha Kunjalaha (“Ashvathama is dead, adding the elephant in a whisper) to vanquish Dhrona – advised and aided by Krishna himself, the next time we damn anyone, let us start with ourselves.
Lance is just only one of the many “hero myths” we continue to create for ourselves. Perhaps they are the heroes that we couldn’t be.