Heroes, legends and myths

For more than a decade I had drawn inspiration from one man more than any other. Lance Armstrong has, for me, been a hero. He took on two of our World’s great challenges and won. Both, it would now seem, were drug assisted.

In the summer of 2001 my Mum’s battle with Cancer ended. She fought avidly for every last breath. I was distraught and retreated to an isolated cottage in Normandy. A keen cyclist, I took with me Armstrong’s book It’s not about the bike. I went in search of answers. At that time, for me, it was not an easy read. Yet from it I drew solace. This hero’s tale of overcoming all odds to beat that repugnant disease, return to cycling and win the iconic Tour de France restored my faith in human endeavour at possibly the lowest point in my life to date.

Going on to win more Tours de France than any other rider before and then extending his reign to achieve a seemingly unsurmountable seven wins, Armstrong became, through my eyes, a legend. Anything else he might seek to achieve, whether it be the Hawaiian Ironman challenge or the United States Presidency, I believed (regardless of our differing political views) he could.

Yet Armstrong’s (un-)sporting achievements have since, it would seem, been exposed as the pinnacle of a labyrinthian quest through which he deceived us all. So today his legend has, to me, become a myth. I no longer admire the man, but I do still want to believe the myth that was Lance Armstrong.

The narrative of his Tours de France career is bestrewn with vignettes that illustrate uncanny skill, agility, determination, combativeness, intellect, and even apparent morality. I find it hard not to still be inspired by his greatest moments. Going mano-a-mano with Marco Pantini on their Mont Ventoux ascent yet conceding the stage to his combatant in the 2000 Tour; giving Jan Ullrich “the look” before soaring away to the summit of Alpe d’Huez in 2001; shortcutting off-road when he found the bike of a fractured Joseba Beloki splayed across his path of the decent into Gap in 2003; and his recovery and impassioned stage win, having had his front wheel wrenched from beneath him by a spectator’s dangling bag strap caught on his brake hood on the Tourmalet the same year. These and other very real moments remain vividly lodged in my mind. The fact that each one of those events have since (allegedly) been overcast by the dark clouds of doping is what has destroyed the legend. My nostalgia for those moments and the inspiration I then drew from them are what have me clinging to the myth.

So what has this got to do with this blog about research and writing. Well, besides the inspiration I gained from Armstrong to keep going (with my doctorate) at a low point in my life, I think I’ve learned a difference between legend and myth. Whether my readings and writings are in the genres of ethnography, memoir, creative non-fiction or fiction, both legend and myth are possible encounters, but they are not the same. All four forms will no doubt be one day (re-)applied to the phenomenon that is Lance Armstrong, as they have been applied to and by other professional cyclists.*

What I hope is that legend and myth are not confused nor conflated in the revised narratives of Lance Armstrong. And, though I feel somewhat cheated by finding his apparent legend to be a myth, I hope that myth is not quashed. Lance Armstrong the hero is, if nothing else, a contemporary fiction that holds meaning for many, and offers opportunity for critical insights into modern morality.

(I do not condone the use of performance enhancing drugs. I am merely a disappointed fan of a sport I once saw as flawed, but now am left wondering what to make of it. I welcome constructive comments on the subject of this blogpost and my writing of it.)

*Cycling ethnography; memoir citing others’ doping in the sport; biography of another fallen hero; and a two-wheeled fiction. I am particularly entranced by the high cadence of The (fictional but seemingly real) Rider created by Tim Krabbé.


5 thoughts on “Heroes, legends and myths

  1. I wrote about this. It was the week he had his trophies stripped and Neil died. I relate on many different levels. From to the idea of heroes to being with my mother as she took her last breath.

  2. Pingback: The Myth Of The American Icon: Are Our Heroes Meant To Fall From Grace? « The Narcissistic Anthropologist

  3. Great post Tim. I feel the same way about everything that’s happened. I think that like a lot of people however, the myth will always be tainted by the reality of what’s happened which is possibly the most disappointing thing.

  4. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from an illusion or fiction as much as from reality, it just seems too disappointing to have been inspired and to have overcome one’s own challenges for it to be tainted by the dishonesty of the role model. I would say that even though he may have been fooling himself, in those moments he wrote about he no doubt saw himself exactly as depicted, it is he who is deluded, not the many who were indeed inspired by what he was trying to do.

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