The bigger the hero, the harder the fall, as in Lance Armstrong’s case, writes Nirmal Shekar

Anyone who can watch a film of Pele dummying the goalkeeper in the Mexico World Cup or Muhammad Ali beating Foreman in Zaire — anyone who can watch those things without tears in their eyes, without being moved in the same way as they are by a work of art is a philistine — there’s no other word for them. — Geoff Dyer in The Colour of Memory

EVEN more than the jaw-droppingly beautiful game of Roger Federer, the Michelangelo of tennis, even more than the gasp-inducing perfection of a Nadia Comaneci on the horizontal bar, even more than the bewitching beauty of a Shane Warne’s wizardry, it is raw courage in the face of extreme adversity that often moves you to tears in the world of sport.

For a long time, nothing brought tears to my eyes as readily as did Lance Armstrong’s story, his epic battle with cancer and his subsequent record-breaking conquest of an event, the Tour de France, that tests a man’s endurance much more than any other sporting spectacle. The American’s achievements seemed to be imbued with an emotional resonance unmatched in the world of sport. He became a universal symbol instead of being yet another great champion.


But the recent turn of events — with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency stripping Armstrong of his seven Tour titles following the champion cyclist’s decision not to challenge USADA’s doping allegations against him — have left me a shattered man. Somehow, I personally feel cheated after having wasted all those emotions on a man who may have been nothing more than a chemically-boosted uber-champion at best, and one of the greatest frauds in the history of modern sport, at worst.

And the tears I shed now are as much because of the moral outrage that I feel as because of memories that I hold of cancer victims I have interacted with; men and women who saw in Armstrong a hugely inspirational figure whose life helped them embolden themselves in their own fight against a disease that still seems to be a mystery to the best of science.

“You know, I am going to do an Armstrong,” said my dear friend and cricketer T. E. Srinivasan — who finally lost his courageous battle with malignant brain tumour two years ago. We were sitting at the pavilion of the Madras Cricket Club and talking everything but cricket.

I am glad T.E. did not live to see the shaming of his idol. He would have been devastated.

Hall of Shame

Every sport has its own Hall of Fame. It is a sort of temple where the game’s icons are enshrined so that their tall deeds may continue to be celebrated by posterity. In the world of cycling, nobody doubted where Armstrong’s place in the gallery of greats is. Now, it might be equally clear where his place in the game’s Hall of Shame is.

Armstrong, to be sure, is not a man to walk away from a fight. In the event, the fact that he has decided to give up fighting the allegations of doping levelled against him means that there may well be incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing on his part.

How quickly great heroes come crashing down in front of our eyes time and again in the world of sport. And the bigger the hero, the harder the fall, as in Armstrong’s case.

Then again, in the world of sport, if success is magnified, then so is failure, particularly moral failure of the kind that Armstrong has been found guilty of. Although very few of us in this tainted world of ours may be qualified to pass moral judgements, one of the exquisite pleasures of being an ordinary citizen is in being able to label someone a villain at the first available opportunity.

For, in Armstrong’s case, everything that he stood out as an icon for — character, integrity, courage, a never-say-die spirit — has now become questionable in a morality play that is unlikely to end anytime soon.

As a champion who fought his way through an obstacle-strewn path, Armstrong’s life and career became so encrusted in myths that the real person became almost invisible. Even now he perhaps is, for many of his fans — and he himself — might still be in the denial mode.

Now it is obvious that the chutzpah that he wore as a protective amulet made sure that the dissonance between his public and private persona was well hidden from our eyes.

Eternal recurrence

But in this Nietzschean world of eternal recurrence, these things are bound to happen again and again and again. In an age of avarice when virtue is often of no value on the heady road to success, many a legend is bound to dismantle himself sooner than later.

Ben Johnson, Diego Maradona, Mike Tyson… just three of tens of dozens who have fallen from grace in modern times. Career-suicide may not be a chosen option, but it is likely to happen some day when a great star believes that the public perception of his character will protect him from almost anything.

As science advances, and prize money and rewards increase exponentially, the number of chemically-enhanced athletes would certainly increase. And all the smartness of the anti-doping officials may not help to bring every one of the wrongdoers to justice.

For all that, you still cannot take away from Armstrong what his foundation — which collected $500 million — has done for cancer survivors. But even those who have been benefited by his charity work would perhaps feel a bit let down.