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Opinion The dichotomy of perception

George HasaraLance Armstrong’s metamorphosis from one of the greatest and admired athletes of all time to one of the greatest cheats in sports history, is fascinating. His Mount Olympus sports-world residency exceeded the quality of his perceived character.

If Lance had simply been lying concerning his constant denials of doping, I could be more sympathetic. However, he wasn't content with merely circumventing the cycling rules like many of his competitors had done. Armstrong was as aggressive using the media and legal system to squash those who dared tell the truth about him as he was conquering the mountains in his numerous Tour de France victories. Excuse me – non-victories. Now, with a measure of poetic justice, the Armstrong lawsuits are not being initiated by him but against him.

Despite his questionable behavior, Armstrong was/is a great athlete. But, that's as far as it goes. One can admire accomplishments without admiring a person as a whole. Personal achievement in sport is thought by many to signify that an individual must be virtuous overall, because, aren't athletics good and wholesome? There are plenty of worthwhile pursuits that never get linked with character. A friend of mine is a fantastic florist, but that isn't the reason I think she's a wonderful person. We don't have florist heroes, but we do have sports heroes. Like a bouquet of flowers, they can be placed on a pedestal.

There is a strong tendency to elevate the status of athletes way beyond their physical accomplishments. Sports fans must have some cognitive dissonance going on with the Armstrong saga. On one hand, how can someone demonstrate that much effort and dedication (to say nothing about overcoming cancer) and then on the other hand, be a cheating and lying sack of steroids? Nope, I don't know the answer to that one.

I imagine that the notion of the purity of sports has contributed to the obsession of drug testing to “ensure” purity of performance. No doubt, ever increasing monetary rewards for athletes also has something to do with treating people like race horses. There is a certain silliness with the cat-and-mouse game of sanctioning bodies devising more elaborate testing, while athletes use their natural competitiveness to get around added barriers. What is or isn't “legal” is constantly shifting. In time, that morning cup of coffee and the multiple vitamin pill it washed down could both be tested for being performance enhancing substances.

People wouldn't be shocked to learn that a rock star had tested positive for drug use. They would be more surprised if he hadn't. Should an actor be stripped of an Academy Award because she used mind or mood enhancing substances during filming? Is this article tainted because it's being written under the influence of caffeine? Let athletes compete and let the chemists attend to more important work.

Lance Armstrong is now a mere mortal with only a hundred million dollars or so to find comfort in. No amount of confessional time with Oprah Winfrey will revive the Armstrong myth but I'm sure someone else is waiting in the wings to pick up the admiration slack.


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