At the same time, the taller the pedestal that holds our athletes, the louder and more painful the crash for us when they fall off. Lance Armstrong's was in the clouds.
Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Lance Armstrong
For years, a striking photograph has decorated the work desk of a former colleague. It depicts the cyclist Lance Armstrong grinding up a hill as an 11-year-old boy runs alongside him, offering encouragement.
Since the somewhat expected yet still staggering conclusion of a report out last week that exposed Armstrong as a scheming cheat, with a little liar thrown in for bad measure, my acquaintance was unsure whether to toss out the photo as he wrestled with a dilemma that has bedevilled scores of conflicted Americans.
What on earth do we make of Lance now?
He excelled in a sport about which we know little, and could care less. So we assign less scorn to him than to Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who tarnished our beloved pastime - baseball - by allegedly ingesting banned performance boosters.
Further, we recognise that he is hardly a slacker outside of his real job, having created the charity Livestrong, which has raised awareness and dollars like no other to combat the scourge of cancer.
That he is a cancer survivor himself, one who returned to his ultra-demanding career with a fury, heightened our adoration for him. Thus, an inner voice urges us not to discard the exemplar Armstrong along with the flawed Armstrong. Achievements that draw admiration can override a multitude of sins.
At the same time, the taller the pedestal that holds our athletes, the louder and more painful the crash for us when they fall off. Armstrong's was in the clouds.
Complicating our quandary on how to judge Armstrong is the drip-drip of findings from investigations that conclude the worst about our sportsmen, not only regarding the drug-fuelled shortcuts they take.
One day, it is the New Orleans Saints slipping bonuses to players for potentially injurious hits. Then it is the esteemed coach Joe Paterno and Penn State University turning a blind eye to a child predator in their midst. Numbed, we brace ourselves for the next study, hoping that it recommends absolution rather than casting its subject in the harshest light, that the accusations against Armstrong can be written off as fibs from jealous competitors.
But, no. When 26 witnesses, including 11 one-time teammates, present sworn testimony against him, the gig is pretty much up. We are tempted to frame his naughtiness in the context of his sport, where the rules of doping seemed ignored. If everyone cheats, does nobody cheat?
Again, no. Maybe we still wear the ubiquitous Armstrong-created yellow Livestrong bracelets, 80 million sold, while contributing to the charity, but surely we must stuff our Armstrong cycling gear deep into a drawer.
Perhaps we use this as a teaching moment. A reminder that no one - least of all athletes - is a two-dimensional being without shades of grey. Neither saint nor sleazebag. Too bad Armstrong cannot utter the magic words - "I did wrong and I am sorry" - that Americans demand before granting forgiveness and a second chance.
An apology would subject Armstrong to possible perjury charges, stemming from his claims in court that he never doped. Sadly, silence is golden. It will allow Armstrong to keep his gold.
Well, most of it. It took a week after the report's release for Armstrong to start careening downhill with no brakes.
Nike, known to stick by its athletes through the thickest of storms, dropped its sponsorship of Armstrong. Not as costly to his bank account, but far more to his ego, he resigned as the chairman of Livestrong.
As for my old co-worker, the photo will remain on his desk, still giving out inspiration.
That inspiration emanates no longer from Armstrong, but from the young boy - now a young man, involved in charity work and studying to become a doctor.
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