Lance Armstrong: A Fragile Pedestal for Athlete Leaders

Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, a larger than life heroic leader, has been pushed off his pedestal this week.

Michael Paulsen/AP

Because of the doping scandal, Armstrong’s name is likely to be expunged from the results of the New York City and Boston marathons, in addition to the Tour de France.

Armstrong, who no longer describes himself as a “seven-time Tour de France winner” on his Twitter bio, competes in triathlons. The Half Full and SuperFrog triathlons have recently chosen to have Armstrong participate, passing up sanctioning by USA Triathlon. Armstrong has denied doping, but gave up his fight against allegations in August.

I’ve written about recent athlete star/leader Gabby Douglas and the strange overlap between athlete leaders and celebrity status. But Armstrong’s story brings another leadership issue into the spotlight: the tremendous pressure of athletic achievement and the unexpected fragility of the pedestal that star athletes stand on as leaders.

Performance enhancing drugs in sports are hardly a new story. ProCon (a non-profit dedicated to supporting critical thinking and public information) traces it back to the ancient Greeks, and offers this interesting link to the USADA evidence against Armstrong:

Skimming the famous faces of athletes in baseball, Olympic competition, basketball and many other sports in their timetable, I couldn’t help but wonder why drugging is so prevalent in athletics, and so disdained.

If we expect athletes to break world records, expand their abilities past human endurance, and maintain athletic excellence well into their middle age, why are we surprised that our leading athletes use performance enhancing drugs? If we believe that natural ability and discipline are enough, why do we push so hard, and only make superheroes out of the highest achievers?

More important, why do we expect our athlete leaders to be so pure? It’s not just the drugs, it’s high morals and careful investments and you name it. Is it fair to expect life perfection as well as physical perfection?

It’s as if we hold a higher standard altogether for our athlete leaders. We don’t ask CEOs or Senators to have perfect bodies, minds and investments. Maybe this demand comes from the kind of authenticity we see in the physical discipline of athletes, and the hero worship we have for their achievements.

Because authenticity, (in the West) is about consistency through and through, mind body and spirit, and because our relationship with our bodies (in the West) is less than respectful, we seem to hold athletes up to a standard none of us could ever achieve even if we stopped eating MacDonalds starchmeat and went to the gym daily. We want our athletes to represent the best of us, even if it kills them, even if it’s a best that would be impossible for most people.

What a cruel pedestal for these role models. First, we ask them to surpass their own considerable physical abilities, extending the reach of the human body’s ability in brutal competition. Then we ask them to become pure in everything they do, if they want to keep being heros. It is an impossible authenticity because it is more about our projection onto the athlete than the athlete’s own personal best.

Authenticity comes from the inside out; it’s a way of being, not primarily a way of being seen. (Despite the fact that it’s tested and enforced by our relationships and actions, it is still a characteristic, not a skill or a popularity contest.) I don’t know if it’s right or wrong that Armstrong is losing his titles, invitations to compete and endorsements. I do know that no athlete with any public presence could live up to our unrealistic expectation for their authentic and unimpeachable purity.

5 comments

  1. […] model (if not a leader)  simply by persistence in following her goals. I’ve written about athletes as role models, a precarious but passionate kind of leadership celebrity – it’s what we allow them, […]

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  2. […] I’ve written about talented athletes as role models, from the sparkling and lucrative rise of Gabrielle Gabby Douglas to the disappointing and much criticized Lance Armstrong. […]

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  3. […] marketing and identity. She hasn’t done either, despite her core talent as an athlete.  Her pedestal shrank awfully quickly, which wasn’t fair, but had less to do with her declaration of Christianity than the fact […]

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  4. […] a role model, for an athlete, is a limited kind of leadership. In 30 years, weʻll probably be still disappointed in Armstrong. Not only is he “not a god” who does “everything right,” heʻs also pretty […]

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  5. […] Lance Armstrong, star athlete, disgraced by drug use to enhance his performance […]

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