By Andrew Bernstein
When Lance Armstrong rode through Paris on Sunday, crowning his unprecedented seventh consecutive victory in the grueling Tour de France, he put an exclamation mark on what is more than merely an extraordinary athletic career.
By this time, the entire world knows Armstrong’s story–his remarkable recovery from what was feared to be terminal cancer, his exhausting training program, his legendary endurance, his dauntless determination, his unequalled dominance of cycling’s premier event. Millions around the world properly celebrate him and his lofty accomplishments.
But what explains the enormous interest in Armstrong’s success–or that of any other sports hero? Why do sports fans set such a strong personal stake in the victories of their heroes? After all, little of any practical significance depends on such victories; a seventh Armstrong win won’t get his fans a raise or help send their children to college. Why do sports have such an enormous, enduring appeal in human life?
The answer lies in a rarely recognized aspect of sports: their moral significance. What athletic victories provide is a rare and crucial moral value: the sight of human achievement.
Athletic competitions are staged with the goal of achieving victory. By their very nature, they seek and honor champions, i.e., those select few who, in a given field, outdistance their brothers and sisters. The result of this policy is that sports reward exceptional achievement, not equality; they glorify the elite, not the ordinary; they celebrate towering heroes, not “the little guy.”
Sports do not seek to “level the playing field” in an attempt to give a less-talented competitor a better chance of defeating a superior rival. Properly, there are no penalties imposed on a champion for being superior to his foes. Lance Armstrong, for example, is not required to heft a twenty pound weight up the steep ascents of the Pyrenees. Michael Jordan was not banned from springing skyward. The PGA does not require Tiger Woods to use an inferior brand of clubs. The only equality permitted is that every competitor gets the same opportunity to showcase his talents and determination.
With artificial handicaps or advantages eliminated, sports provide an undiluted example of the pursuit of excellence. In an era when the anti-hero is dominant in intellectual culture, sports provide the purest arena in which to pursue, observe and appreciate human aspiration, achievement and greatness. The reality of an athlete striving to hone his skills to the utmost–enduring pain, overcoming injury, testing his mettle against the world’s best–provides a noble vision of man’s potential.
Those of us who, physically, cannot cycle 2,000 miles or run the 100 meters in 9 seconds can still aspire to significant achievements. The vision of Armstrong’s magnificent abilities and dauntless determination engenders in the best of us the questions: What might I accomplish in my field and in my life if I embodied the same degree of dedication? How high might I go in my own life-promoting endeavors if I put into them the identical indefatigable qualities of spirit that Armstrong does?
The motto of the Modern Olympic Games is: Citius, Altius, Fortius–Swifter, Higher, Stronger. Lance Armstrong embodies these principles perfectly. A great athlete like Armstrong is inspiring, because he reminds us how much is possible to a human being. He is living proof that an individual can reach great attainments and that profuse exertion in pursuit of a daunting goal need not be fruitless.