Deconstructing Heroes

If you believe, then they are a hero, and performed as such. If you do not, then they were merely a man, and it does not matter.
If you believe, then he was a hero, and performed as such. If you do not, then he was merely a man, and it does not matter.

I feel like I’ve come late to cycling. Not by age – I know others who didn’t start cycling until they were twice the age I am now. No, I mean by era. The mid-90’s through 2000’s went by with me having only a passing familiarity of the name Armstrong. Names like Hincapie, Danielson, Vande Velde and Zabriskie were just that, names. But during this era of cycling superheroes, they weren’t just names to those following this sport. They were living legends.

So when USADA’s report blew down the doors of this gilded age to reveal unprecedented levels of cheating, corruption, and┬ádeceit, I felt like my own reaction to this scandal was lacking. I didn’t have the deep ties to the myths (let alone the supposed facts) surrounding these incredible athletes. I didn’t follow the incredible wins, the heart-breaking losses, and the brutal, almost gladiatorial races they endured.

And credit where credit is due: whether enhanced or not, their feats were incredible. These people routinely did the unimaginable, and performed at a level most people can’t even fathom.

Therein, lies the heart of the problem.

Americans – and I point out Americans because that’s what I am and know; this may apply to humans in general – we’re great at several things that unfortunately continue to go hand-and-hand:

  1. Building up a hero.
  2. Worshiping a hero.
  3. Destroying a hero.

We can’t just settle for regular people doing good jobs. No, we need more. We need someone to push against the realms of the possible so that our dreams can expand in their wake. We take above-average and even extraordinary people and say “Can you do better?” And they do. But we’re never satisfied. Our appetite for pushing the envelope is insatiable. So in our efforts to hold them up as a paragon, we push. And we push. And we push.

In turn, so must they. They push themselves to the breaking point. And then they push themselves beyond. There comes a point where they have to make a choice: accept their limitations or find a way to go beyond them. We don’t like seeing the limitations of our heroes. It’s far too easy for us to think, “If they have limitations, so do we.” So just like our heroes – these impressive athletes turned demi-gods – we find ourselves with a choice: accept them as being human and dispel our collective myths, or keep pushing them to go further.

I can’t say I’ve ever had that kind of pressure. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have the world urging you on, knowing that any failure – however slight – is compounded a thousand-fold. But I can easily see how that kind of pressure to perform would override ones own judgement. I mean, who are they to let down millions of us?

And so, these otherwise good people (I’d like to assume that most of them are good), in an attempt to live up to impossible standards, cheat. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Maybe to what someone on the outside would see as a sickening degree. But their job wasn’t to follow the rules. Not anymore. It might’ve started out that way, but their job became satisfying our need for heroes.

We got what we wanted. Super-human efforts, and super-human results. We questioned them, but not too closely. At first. But after building heroes and worshiping them, we start to turn to our third need. That is, the need to destroy them.

Maybe we can’t stand to see the levels of adulation and favor thrust upon these otherwise normal people. Maybe we’re jealous. I don’t know. Again, I don’t like to assume we’re naturally mean-spirited. But unfortunately, the nature of large groups of humans doesn’t seem to agree. Mobs can easily and quickly turn ugly. And a mob the size of the following these athletes obtain… I can’t even imagine.

So what are we left with? Athletes who pushed themselves – and their morality – beyond the breaking point. They did this to satisfy our hunger for something to believe in. And in return, we vilify them for doing whatever it took to satisfy us.

Do I fault them for cheating? Yes. They were wrong for doing so. They set a bad example for others to follow. To not fault them is to say their actions were acceptable, or moreover, the excuses given for their actions were acceptable. If we are ever to progress, then we must not condone these actions, regardless of justification (note: understanding is not the same as condoning). But we must also fault ourselves. We pushed them that far, and then we blamed them for doing whatever it took to live up to our expectations. Just like we cannot ignore their wrongdoing, we too cannot ignore our own.

Here’s what this neophyte cyclist recommends: recognize the heroes that we have, not the ones we want to make. Remember that triumphs come in all sizes, and that people don’t need to be super-human. When I look at someone who crests a climb faster than they did last month through hard work and time in the saddle, to me, that’s worth celebrating. The cyclist that finally loses that winter weight? Kudos, keep up the good work. The rider who doesn’t give up, no matter the weather, the distance, the time? These people should inspire us as cyclists. As humans.

And that pro rider who does their best to ride at levels we can only dream of – cleanly, and with incredible discipline and training – they should be held up as the heroes they are, not as we would have them be.