August 26, 2012
Heroes are risky business. When they fall, a lot of hope and faith crash around them.
So it goes with Lance Armstrong.
Last week, after Armstrong announced he was tired of fighting allegations that he used banned drugs to boost his cycling career, an anti-doping agency recommended he be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from cycling for life.
You could almost hear yellow bracelets by the thousands plopping into the trash.
"I am saddest for the cancer sufferers who made Armstrong a hero," said the French sports reporter who years ago helped ignite the investigation. "His biggest crime was to lie to those people."
Did he lie?
Armstrong insists he's innocent, but his decision to give up the fight smells to many like guilt. Whatever the truth is, his hero's pedestal is as wobbly as a bike that just ran over a nail.
Unlike many sports "heroes," Armstrong earned the title with more than athletic bravura. His cycling triumphs have been cast as a mental, even moral, victory over his cancer, and through his Livestrong foundation, countless other people have been inspired to believe that they can conquer the killer disease. Hope helps.
But what are the believers to do with their yellow bracelets now?
When I posed the question Friday, on Facebook and elsewhere, I heard from a few people ready to renounce the little plastic symbols of the faith.
"We should hold a public burning of the bracelets," said Chicagoan David Nathan.
Loyalists like Jeff Borys, a Clarendon Hills salesman, disagreed. His aunt gave him a bracelet after his uncle got cancer.
"I don't ever take it off," he said. "The band is now very thin so it will probably break in the next year or so, and I will get another. Not sure what to believe regarding the drug use, but it does not matter to me. His cause is greater than his accomplishments."
Then there were the ambivalent, like Laureen Prentice Barnes, a Chicago architect.
"I'm a 10-year breast cancer survivor," she said. "I've worn the same Livestrong since they first came out. I still have it on, but I'm unsure if I will keep it on. I know that I will feel really sad if I do end up removing it. It's not at all about 'liking' Lance Armstrong's personality. It's what he overcame to live."
It can be hard to distinguish between an individual and a cause, to disassociate the good in a person from the bad. But it's usually a mistake to attach your hope and faith too strongly to the idea of individuals as heroes. Many of us make the mistake in different ways.
I have a friend who as a young woman had a mentor she still considers a personal hero. She solicits his advice, cherishes his opinion. I know some things about his professional conduct that, if I told her, would call it all into question.
But his advice helps her. His encouraging opinion keeps her strong. Does she need to know he's made some grave mistakes? Not from me, I've decided.
It's not an exact analogy to Armstrong, I know, but the point is that people can do a lot of good even if they're not full-fledged heroes.
"I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title," Armstrong said last week, "serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities."
If he does that, even if he doesn't survive as a cycling hero, he'll still qualify as an OK guy.
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