Friday, January 18, 2013

The not-about-Lance-Armstrong post


Everyone is talking about Lance Armstrong, so I am not going to. But I am going to consider some of the issues his case raises. Actually, as I think about it, there are probably so many issues that considering them all would fill books – and probably will. So here I will limit myself to just a few points.

The need to win
The drive to win, whether it be in competition with ourselves or others, whether it be against an illness, whether it be in a conflict, is deeply rooted in the human psyche. It is difficult to label it as a bad thing. Without it, we would not have overcome so many of the difficulties that the human race has faced over the millennia. Without it, we would not see the human spirit rise to the heights that it sometimes does. The drive to be the best that we can is, surely, a good thing. At some point, however, it is fair to ask: at what cost? I may want to be the very best at what I do. But if I achieve this at the cost of my physical or mental health, or at the cost of my relationships, or at the cost of my children, surely I have lost perspective. It is easy to become addicted to victory, to success, or, at least, to the adrenalin rush that accompanies it. This addiction is as destructive and harmful as any other. In fact, this addiction is a terrible side effect of the evolutionary process that has enabled us to be so successful as a species.

Why sport?
Our society seems to value success in sport more highly than it values other kinds of success. The Australian of the Year title has been awarded to a sportsperson in 13 out of 52 years. It has been awarded to someone within the medical community 11 times. It has been awarded to someone in the entertainment/arts community 11 times. Perhaps sports people are our gladiators. We certainly admire people who push themselves to their physical limits. Again, I would not say that this is a bad thing. I enjoy it too. But perhaps we do not have the balance quite right.

Of course, because we value sport so highly, we also despise cheats in this area more than in other areas. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and various other clich├ęs. I understand why we admire people who show outstanding prowess at some particular physical challenge. But why should we expect them to also show any particular prowess at being human? Why do we expect them also to be “good” people? “Because young people look up to them. They are role models,” I hear you say. But this is not really an answer to the question. This might be why we want them to be good people; it does not explain why we expect them to be. Perhaps part of what needs to change is our expectations.

Then there is money, of course. Enough said about that.

Poppy-lopping
This is an Australian term, and I am not sure if it is current anywhere else. It refers to the tendency of Australians to want to “cut down to size” anyone who becomes too “up themselves”. In other words, to cut down the tall poppies. We don’t like people to get uppity, and so there is always a little delight when the “mighty” fall. Perhaps this makes us feel better about ourselves. So, despite our delight in success, paradoxically we also secretly take delight in spectacular failure. I would not like to be someone that the mob had in its sights. Of course, as soon as someone is caught out, they immediately become a bad person, in every respect. Previously we knew they were good at something (let’s say, cycling) and for some reason we assumed that they were also good in a deeper sense. Now we know they did a bad thing, so they must actually be bad. Somehow, the idea that good people can sometimes do bad things, or that bad people can sometimes do good things, eludes us. To put it another way, we live under the illusion that there are good and bad people when, in fact, there are only people.

Lance Armstrong’s sin was to reveal that he is after all, human. Eventually he may feel relieved to have been stripped of his divine status.

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