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Posted at 07:40 PM ET, 08/24/2012

Lance Armstrong, the hero deficit, and the unhappening


Just another guy. (ANTHONY BOLANTE - REUTERS)
The yellow wristbands were everywhere, not long ago. You could not walk down the street or turn on the TV without several glimpses of charitable rubber hanging out at someone’s cuff. Livestrong. If Lance Armstrong could battle cancer and win seven Tours de France, we had no excuses.

Well, Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles are no more. So we have all sorts of excuses.

So why don’t I feel better?

Heroes are hard to come by. Invariably they live too long. If Alexander the Great had made it to middle age, he would be downgraded to Alexander the Moderately Good or Alexander the Actively Bad. Heroes disappoint. They sour. They say the wrong thing or they are caught on tape doing something horrid or we dig too deep and we discover buried awfulness.

It was always a mistake, I know, to assume that just because someone was good at running or cycling or golfing he would be a model for your life, but with Lance Armstrong it was hard to avoid. The man battled cancer and won seven Tours de France. He hosted SNL. He even showed up in the movie “Dodgeball” to rebuke Vince Vaughn’s character for quitting. It was difficult not to be a little inspired.

Now, with the USADA’s decision and the cloud of drug speculation, in spite of all those passed drug tests, there’s one fewer hero on an already diminished pile. And I don’t feel vindicated or triumphant. I’m just a little disappointed.

The ability of sports-governing bodies to alter past events never ceases to astound me. First, the NCAA voids Penn State’s victories. Now the USADA has stripped Lance Armstrong of all seven of his Tour de France titles. Amazing things happen and then they unhappen. The statue topples. The record melts.

Lance Armstrong. Tiger Woods. Joe Paterno. Sports heroes tarnish faster than their trophies.

Lance Armstrong’s decision to stop fighting the USADA was taken as an admission of a sports crime, and for that sports crime he was punished. Sports crimes are different than other crimes. They are both not as bad, and worse. The word goes out: He cheated, and he is no better than you. Everyone joked about how it felt to wake up with the same number of Tour de France titles as Lance.

Wonderful, USADA. Well done. You got him! What satisfaction does anyone get from this? The sport of cycling is redeemed, the sport to which no one paid any attention until Lance Armstrong did the impossible. Maybe the impossible actually was impossible. But for a moment we believed and the bracelets spread.

When it comes to the Great Sport of Bicycling, I am like most people. My knowledge of the Tour de France consists of vaguely wondering how hard any sport can really be if you can sit down during it (very hard, it turns out). All I knew about the Tour de France was that it was something Lance Armstrong had won, seven times, and I had the bracelet to prove it.

It was nice to feel that there were people out there who could do the impossible and overcome the toughest odds and sell you a rubber bracelet afterwards. Lance Armstrong was one of those people. Now the USADA has done its work towards clearing the honor of the sport of cycling, or something. But most people do not have strong feelings about cycling. They have strong feelings about Lance.

Who exactly was baying for this outcome?

We have a hero deficit as it is. The instant you look up to someone you start waiting for the shoe to drop. Maybe you will be lucky and it will turn out just to be a little gaffe, some minor infidelity, bounced checks, theft, larceny, something not so ground-shakingly awful as Penn State.

So much for sports heroes. We just have people who play sports. And perhaps this is for the best.

That’s what was so exhausting about the Lance Armstrong thing.

Sometimes you just don’t want to know. This was one of those times. It’s a strange impulse. Usually I am all for digging. Usually I want to find out the truth. The truth, I hear, will set you free. But this time what passes for truth is just frustrating and small. What we lost was more valuable than what we gained.

“Formerly,” Oscar Wilde said, “we used to canonize our heroes. The modern method is to vulgarize them. Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are always detestable.”

The vogue for yellow rubber bracelets is long over.

By  |  07:40 PM ET, 08/24/2012

 
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