Athlete Role Models are Human, too: “I am no god that can see everything and do everything right.” (Jan Ullrich)

Jan Ullrich, the German cyclist who refused to move up from 2nd to 1st place winner when Lance Armstrongʻs titles were rescinded, has recently admitted that he, also, received performance enhancing treatments. His argument for his decision, which he admits was wrong by the rules of the sport, was that instead of offering him an advantage, it prevented him from being disadvantaged.

According to a news summary from DW, Ullrich argues that Armstrongʻs medals should be reinstated because doping was such a common part of the sport.

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“At that time, nearly everyone was using doping substances and I used nothing that the others were not using.”

Ullrich told the magazine he was motivated to use performance-enhancing substances to ensure he was on a level-playing field with his competitors, but argued that he was not a cheat.

“In my view you can only call it cheating on my part when it is clear that I have gained an unfair advantage,” he said. “This is not the case. All I wanted was everyone to have the same chances of winning.”

According to ESPN, Ullrich was unapologetic. “I am no god that can see everything and do everything right.”  In fact, his choice was driven by a competitive urge to match, as closely as he could, the advantages others were seeking.

The distinction between cheating and breaking the rules doesnʻt hold up as an argument for reinstating anyone, but itʻs a fascinating glimpse into the world of professional sports, where personal best is often synthetically — not just genetically — enhanced. Training and dedication are only part of the picture, although the heroic myth of athletes offers us training and dedication as the lesson we should all take from their glory. They are leaders in the sport because of their achievement, and what gives their achievement meaning is the myth that training and dedication are the deciding factors between winning and losing.

Check out the lively and fascinating discussion in the comments after the news summary in Cycling News if you want to hear what the fans are saying about this. The debate ranges from from disgust about the whole issue, the 2005 Tour and Ullrichʻs statement to an informed and passionate debate about whether equally-prevalent doping means a leveled playing field. This is a serious event in the cycling world, because the inspirational leaders, the role models who inspire cyclists all over the world, are proving themselves to be human, shaped as much by peer pressure and privilege as any of us!

In terms of  the spirit of leadership, and the strange negotiation of potential leaders with their hero/celebrity status, I keep returning to Ullrichʻs telling statement: “I am no god that can see everything and do everything right.”

He is right, he is no god. But we want to turn him, and our athlete role models, into gods, and thatʻs the curse of their impossible balancing acts on the impossible pedestals we create for them. No matter how hard they try to make their personal lives match our need for them to be perfect, they will fall. Even if they hold the moral high ground in every action, theyʻll grow older and be toppled by younger, stronger athletes, probably with access to younger, stronger drugs.

The career of a role model is rarely long term. As we see in the shiny coffers and earnest marketability of Gabby Douglas, smart money management in the heyday of celebrity is the best preparation for the day they lose their status as athlete gods.

Douglas "incognito" ordering her sandwich

Douglas “incognito” ordering her sandwich in the MacDonaldʻs video

In the end, being 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 transparent working in his own self-interest to stay high enough on the pedestal to profit from our attention.

Whether thatʻs fair or not depends on your perspective. Itʻs very disappointing that he won titles and profited from them as a participant in a doping culture. But would we be so disappointed (and him so rich, and the culture so doped?) if we didnʻt expect our star athletes to be god-like role models of physical perfection and moral achievement? Probably not.

For the purposes of leadership, I think we should ask three questions when we look at the cultural roles of these athletic celebrities:

1. Do they turn their public acclaim into something more than personal gain during their star turn?

2. Do they themselves (beyond their marketed persona) step up in statements, investments or teaching roles that inspire leadership and action in others?

3. When theyʻre no longer young, strong and agile, what are they doing? In retirement, what other identities and skills as leaders have they developed?

The answers to those questions — and not the contradictions between their personal choices and their public role — will determine whether athlete celebrities have successfully claimed a leadership role.

One comment

  1. […] written a lot about the temptation for leaders to go against their values, (The Bathsheba Syndrome, sports scandals). I’ve also looked at the dangers of leading integrally with our values and authentic selves […]

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