It’s OK To Mourn When ‘Heroes’ Let Us Down


It is not pleasant to learn that our sports and entertainment idols have feet of clay, but it is far worse when those people also have seemed to personally shine above and beyond their abilities. Golf addicts mourned the ruin of Tiger Woods after the breakup of his marriage, but he was simply an admired athlete. But two recently disgraced heroes hurt people far more with their behavior.

Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius were admired far more than for athletic accomplishment. Armstrong was the winner of seven Tour de France bicycling events, but everyone also knew that he had fought and beaten cancer before he competed. He got a bad deal, it seemed, but was victorious. He beat guys who had never had to face death the way he had; who never had to face the horror of anti-cancer treatments, which are often almost as debilitating as the disease. People who had cancer, people who had beaten cancer, people who had family members fight and/or succumb to the disease, could root for him. He worked with those who were cancer-stricken. He visited children in hospitals, where his very existence, beyond his athletic ability, provided hope. The other cyclists were athletes; he was a hero.

And Oscar Pistorius had an even tougher climb. A double amputee since before he was a year old, he overcame the lack of the bottom parts of his legs. Not only did he walk, he ran. And he ran so well that he became a symbol of hope for many other handicapped athletes. He was good enough that he even competed and won a place on the South African Olympic Team last year and competed against those who never faced his level of problem. He seemed to demonstrate that even if one had a handicap, it could be overcome. His had been genetic, but there were children all over the world who had lost limbs for many different reasons who saw him as a portent that losing one part or even two did not mean the loss of a chance in life.

And then the heroes fell. There had been charges for years that Armstrong used banned drugs. And just as quickly as charges were made, Armstrong and his supporters pointed to his unblemished record in drug testing. But the charges kept coming, and finally, we now learn that he did take drugs, that he had lied to the public all along. The fact that just about everyone on the Tour de France circuit uses drugs means little. There was a marvelous skit on Saturday Night Live where one of the awards is given to a chubby guy who placed just about at the end but was the only person not taking drugs. That was an overstatement, of course, but the cycling leadership decided not to give anyone else the medals because the cheating was so widespread that there was no guarantee that a cheater would not be rewarded.

And the case of Pistorius seems even sadder. Charged with the murder of his girlfriend, he now is a sad example of trying to cast people in leadership roles when they do not clearly lead. He overcame a lot; his accomplishments on the track were not marred by cheating, although some people said that the technology in his legs gave him an advantage. But his personal life seems to have ruined everything. We have seen this before: Note O.J. Simpson. But no matter the outcome of the South African judicial process, he is ruined as a hero.

We need heroes. Celebrity worship is tied more to physical beauty, some talent, some accomplishment that generally has nothing at all to do with personal character. When a Charlie Sheen misbehaves, we shrug. When an Alex Rodriguez faces drug-use charges again, we simply attribute his personal failure to his own character and write him off. Our celebrity press has basically become an industry obsessed with cataloging the bad behavior of the well-known.

But when we look to personal heroes, those who go the extra mile, to become role models, we may be forced to recognize they can often turn out to have feet of clay. Perhaps we are wrong to hold up these people as exemplars, but what else can we do? We no longer simply worship war heroes. Our politicians too often seem corrupt, although we are corrupt enough to accept it if they do things that favor us.

So we raise certain people above us, and unfortunately, we are too often disappointed. I have no easy answer; I doubt one exists.