The largest of the small people in my house is hard at work learning how to be an educated person. One of the GCSE’s on the revision list is Physical Education. When I was at school, PE was mostly about prancing about in your underwear, climbing ropes and playing British Bulldog slightly too aggressively. It wasn’t really about learning anything. PE then was more about blowing off some steam and making sure that even the plump kids moved around a bit every now and then.
These days it’s a proper subject. They do all kinds of stuff about physiology and the science of performance enhancement. They do set pieces in a number of proper sports, providing evidence of achievement to a recognised minimum level of competence. They actually learn stuff that is useful. Honest. They do. It’s a proper subject. It really is.
The other day the teacher gave them a little talk about the whole Lance thing. When she got home, small person asked me if I had heard the news… “Lance Armstrong took drugs… It’s terrible”. She was so disappointed. She couldn’t believe that this guy, who had been such a paragon of virtue, such an inspiration, had been cheating the whole time. She’s 15. She’d hardly heard of Lance Armstrong before. A few weeks before she may well have thought he was that old guy that had walked on the moon when the world was all grainy black and white. Having learned about Lance the athlete in some detail, she was horrified and extremely disappointed.
We had a long discussion about it. The fact that he had been such a hero. The fact that he was such an amazing rider, such an inspirational athlete, the best rider of his and probably any other generation before him. His tireless work for charity (“ah, so he’s the guy who made all those yellow arm bands.. cool”). How he came back from the brink, recovering from the very nastiest kick in the balls any man can suffer. And then, the fact that he cheated so shamelessly. The fact that he denied it over so many years. The fact that it was cheating on an almost industrial scale. That fact that so many other riders and trainers were drawn into the web of deceit.
The whole story left her feeling personally let down.
He had won most of his races while she was still learning how to tie her shoe laces. Had it all been real that would not have mattered. He could still have been an inspiration to this member of a new generation. His achievements were so great, so outstanding that his legacy could have spanned the generations. Yet the fact that he had cheated so shamelessly instead induced a strong feeling of betrayal, even before she had a chance to become a fan. Clearly, the reaction was coloured by the way the teacher had pitched the story. There is no doubt it was not a positive or forgiving tone with which the story was related. But it struck me that here was a child of 15, feeling personally disappointed in a supposed role model from an entirely different generation.
For many people – perhaps most people – the desire to admire the super human achievements of others is a basic, deep seated and strong driver. We love to watch our heroes succeed. We positively revel in the success of others. We feel part of it. There are people who will watch their favourite football team on the same screen, standing in the same position in the same pub, wearing the same shirt, every week. They are convinced that if they are not there, wearing that lucky shirt, their team will lose. Superstition perhaps. But it shows they think they are more than just another spectator, they are part of the game. Where they are, what they wear, actually matters. John Terry being on form is important, but the colour of their shirt matters just as much as the players out there on the turf. For that fan, it is a fact that a decision to stay at home or watch the game at the pub over the road can change the course of the game just as much as John Terry or Theo Walcott’s right boot can. These people don’t just watch, they partake.
Be it the striker of a favoured football team, the sprinter that runs faster than anyone else alive, the cyclist who wins the hardest race on earth, seven times, we watch because we want to be one of them. And for some of us, for the short time we spend doing what they do all day, in the confines of our own minds at least, we are one of them. That’s why it hurts so much when we find out it was all a lie. We were not the best after all. All our victories are meaningless because you took drugs.
Damn it, I did my bit, I watched. I cheered. I aspired. I tried to emulate. How could let me down like that ?
It takes a long time and much effort to win the kind of admiration and status Lance had attained with his fans. When that kind of admiration is betrayed, in such a shameless, calculated and unscrupulous way, the effect is so huge, the breach of trust so great, that the feeling of betrayal and disappointment may take more than one generation to dissipate. It’s a shame. Because even with the drugs, his achievements are incredible.
I wonder, in years to come, will the drugs be forgiven and forgotten ? Will Lance again be the greatest rider who ever lived ? Will the history books of the future have footnotes about the drugs and chapters about the victories? Or chapters about the drugs and footnotes about the now expunged victories ? Will the memory of Lance Armstrong, the super human rider, be able to overcome the stigma of drug enhanced performance and live for ever through his victories ?
Listening to Small Person, it doesn’t sounds like it. What a shame. What a damned shame.