AUSTIN, Texas — For all his athletic achievements, with or without doping, cheating, lying and intimidation, Lance Armstrong was never a hero.
Strangely, his confession — after a decade of being hounded for cheating his way to the top of his sport and our celebrity culture — provides a kind of opportunity for all of us to rethink who we think are heroes. It seems absurd that we cull heroes of any sort at all from the worlds of politics and power, let alone from sports and entertainment. All this raises the question: Who, really, is a hero? And do we need heroes at all?
It is ironic, in the extreme, that at the same time that the television screen carries Armstrong’s iron-jaw confession, bereft of at least a show of remorse, it also carries the bizarre story of another alleged hero, Notre Dame’s Manti Teo. However he became embroiled in the fake, dead girlfriend affair, was an iconic hero really a college kid who played for a not-so-great team? It appears that our definition of a hero has, indeed, slipped that far.
The very word hero is derived from the Greek word of the first century — and it is almost entirely based upon myth. The hero, to cite Merriam-Webster (not Wikipedia) was either legendary or divine, or both. He was an illustrious warrior on a quest and appeared in epic poetry like “The Illiad” or “Gilgamesh,” or “The Aeneid.” The hero was Beowulf destroying the monster, Grendel. In not so many words it came down to this: The hero was never real.
Over time, however, it has become common for people with fame, money and power to try to grab the mantle of demi-god, and for a very simple reason. Becoming one — or rather, convincing others that you are one — invokes more fame, money and power. The trail is littered with heroes in business, politics, entertainment and sports who had talent, yes, but they just wanted more power, money and fame. Tiger Woods, John Edwards, the lions of Wall Street or Bill Clinton. The list is so long we actually forget who’s gone through the cycle of public contrition and restoration. I mean who remembers what Kanye West, Kobe Bryant, and, say, Alec Baldwin even did? And why did it even matter.
And, with the help of our star-struck story-tellers in the mass media, many of us went along until they did not so much fall from grace but were revealed — voila — to have never been heroic at all. Instead, they were just talented mortals with extraordinary ambition, which almost always involves the temptation to lie, steal or cheat. The notion that a professional athlete, who is hard-wired to do anything to win at any cost to anyone, could be a leadership figure is preposterous on its face and has been all along.
A few days ago, I received a phone call from The Independent of London about the Lance Armstrong escapade; frankly, it doesn’t even deserve the moniker of scandal. I was asked if somehow Austin was circling the wagons around Armstrong or if the city he has called home was mortified. I put the phone down and asked my friend Patrick what he thought. He replied: “We’ve moved on.” I relayed that message over the phone, however anecdotal and perhaps disappointing.
And everybody should just move on. Armstrong’s performance in his interview was gritty and determined and part of the ridiculous cycle of contrition — and a return to money, fame and power. It is trite and predictable as a stopwatch. But it should give pause to anyone putting stock in nothing more than ambition. When the Greek became the Latin and the Latin became the English, the definition of a hero evolved to include a character in a play or story, people who played a role, say, in a movement — or simply someone with noble qualities.
And are we not grown up enough now to not need public heroes? The mythology of heroism was originally spun as a form of both inspiration and, frankly, propaganda. And it is exploited as exactly the latter today. What if a hero is a friend who helps you get a job? Or, a hero is a mother who raises you or a father who puts you through college. A hero takes real risks to save other people, literally and figuratively. A hero is someone who strives day in and day out to do something meaningful — without an ounce of public recognition.
What if a real hero is someone who never becomes famous for his or her deeds at all? Then we would know that those who do are not heroic at all, just ambitious to the point of exploitative. As for Lance Armstrong, he was obviously a very determined athlete and a highly-compensated entertainer — and that’s all professional athletes are. But no. He was never a hero. And neither is the next Lance Armstrong who is already out there, waiting in the wings.
Richard Parker is a regular contributor to McClatchy-Tribune and The New York Times. Hardy Gest contributed research to this article.