I generally avoid all things athletic. I appreciate the ancient notions of sports as one part of a balanced life, but today, the money and attention paid to athletes distorts them far out of proportion. That being said, I have as much interest in Lance Armstrong as I do in Oprah Winfrey–which is to say, none. But I’ve reached the conclusion that I ought to care, at least about Armstrong, in one specific way.
Armstrong is today’s expression of the tragic hero, someone blessed with extraordinary qualities, but cursed by a character flaw. It is gratifying to watch an attention-whore rise and then stumble on his own steam. The Germans call that schadenfreude. Aristotle said that we experience catharsis in watching a tragedy. Our emotions rise and fall with the hero, and we are purged of the passions–those feelings that control us, rather than what we control. (Note that passion and passive have the same root.)
But do we need yet another example of tragic failure? Isn’t it enough that we have Oedipus and Hamlet to contemplate?
Sadly, no. The indiscriminate attention that people like Armstrong receive shows that we still need to be reminded of the difference between appearance and genuine achievement. Neil Armstrong, an Armstrong worthy of our respect, and Buzz Aldrin reached the Moon with the aid of thousands of engineers and scientists. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Mt. Everest, and later, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler were the first to do so without supplemental oxygen. Need I say that all of them did what they did without cheating? In each case of the real, as opposed to the fake, we were shown what human beings can do. These shining examples pushed the limits.
Lance Armstrong opened no new frontiers. We already know how far we can fall. Or, to be more accurate, we ought to know, but we so often forget. This is the value of his tragedy. He is a reminder, like a highway sign that warns of the potential for falling rocks or of the lack of a shoulder. The heroes of achievement, by contrast, are maps that guide us forward.
A thing has value in its proper place. Put Lance Armstrong and all of his ilk where he belongs, and move on to matters of greater moment.