Roger Marolt: It should have been all about the biking
I’m asking for a gift. It’s not a demand. It is the meekest of requests. It’s found in just one place and can’t be bought. I am thinking only of myself here. If you guessed world peace, you are getting warmer.
In my tiny orbit, I am asking for forgiveness from Lance Armstrong.
It’s a bold ask coming from a guy he wouldn’t know if we passed on a single-track mountain bike trail, but I figure I didn’t really know him when I attacked, either. I have been harder on Lance Armstrong than any public figure. I treated him worse than Trump. I judged him like a grizzly judges a salmon run. While he was struggling against the current, I raked the water with my claws, indiscriminately devouring every morsel landing on the bank.
I claimed it wasn’t so much the performance enhancing drugs that bothered me, but rather his lying and bullying to cover the cheating and ruination of honest people along the way. He claimed it became part of winning at all costs. I was on my own quests to prove righteousness and maybe win awards of my own. It escaped me that my hash words essentially amounted to what I accused him of doing – hurting people. Thankfully, hypocrites are hard to recognize; I continued to shave each morning, humming happy tunes.
Lance set out to be the world’s greatest bicycle racer. We melted down his dreams, abilities, and dedication to cast the likeness of a mythical god to worship. No human could live up to it. He tried too hard and crossed the sold yellow line on a hairpin turn. And we ended up disappointed in him? It is the sad irony of hero worship.
We excused ourselves. The story was too good: One of the world’s greatest athletes ravaged by cancer in his prime, dropped at death’s door by the Grim Reaper who rang the bell and ran away laughing, only to have Lance jump back on the bike, reel him in, and leave him in a jumble on the side of the road, scythe jammed into his spokes. It was a legend we yearned to believe. It was a legend those afflicted with cancer had to believe. No pressure, right?
I have speculated what I might have done in his cycling shoes. So many riders at that level partook in the doping that it would be the pinnacle of arrogance to be believe that I would have somehow been above it.
I know I would not have been as inspirational, especially to the millions directly and indirectly devasted by cancer. That was a great gift that we appreciated at first and then threw aside after we saw it came from an imperfect human. I couldn’t separate the good from the bad. It was a serious mistake claiming as a flaw the contradictions universally intertwined in the human condition.
Lance Armstrong admitted to doing “terrible things” racing down the pot-holed road of PEDs. I was happy to show how hard I could throw stones. It amounted to a contest about whose house had more glass. I should have hired a window washer to get clearer view.
Heroes are one-dimensional creatures of our making. When performances are good, we love them. When imperfect, we are passionately merciless. We fail to see them navigating our shared challenging human existence, or that they must do it with everyone watching.
Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani were great cyclists similarly disgraced in the doping dragnet. One has been institutionalized over a mental breakdown and the other is dead from an overdose. Could these results be products of shame’s stress? While it can’t be traced to the attacks of one journalist or fan, the collective will never take responsibility. It is imperative that such carnage of human soul not occur again, but we sadly know it will. I hope not at the point of my pen again.
We love heroes with superpowers. We have learned that no professional sports body gained anything by detecting doping and banishing their best athletes. And, while few fans overtly condone performance enhancing drugs, we do understand they are widely used and passively grant our approval. The truth is Lance’s yellow jersey legacy would be solidly intact if his career took place today.
I am sorry, Lance. And, I hope you will accept this humble gift, even if not neatly wrapped: I pray for peace in your life and all the joy, love, and good things that come with that. Feel free to return or re-gift it.
Roger Marolt knows the pen sometimes draws blood that needs to be tested before laying it down as ink. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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