Who are the real dopes in our worship of sporting “heroes”?
For all the talk about doping that has dominated the news since Lance Armstrong finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs during his cycling career, there is a curious silence about another kind of dope.
Even before his spectacular fall from grace there was something nonsensical about the international fawning and obscene sums of money corporations were so eager to throw in his direction.
No-one was forced to spend millions in endorsements on a man who was, all hyperbole aside, famous for merely riding a bike very, very fast.
Admittedly certain chapters in Armstrong’s life story helped lift the asking price of his marketability, most notably his recovery from testicular cancer and subsequent seven Tour de France titles.
Yet even sporting champions who do not posses a similarly remarkable tale of inspiration are regularly feted by an adoring media, and showered with excessively generous sponsorship deals of their own.
Amid the braying and hand-wringing by wronged parties who now claim to feel betrayed there has been precious little acknowledgment that lavishing any one person with millions of dollars to star in pretentious commercials was always ridiculous.
And yet in a culture in which successful athletes are commonly referred to as “heroes”, shelling out the equivalent of the GDP of a developing nation to hire a sports star to spruik everything from soft drink to skincare has become common practice.
So few companies flinched at the prospect of hiring a pre-scandal Armstrong to sell their wares for an astronomical fee.
In recent days sports commentators have lined up – quite rightfully – to portray Armstrong as an arrogant character who mercilessly belittled anyone who dared to question the mythology surrounding him.
But what remains unsaid is that these are the very qualities invariably celebrated in those who choose to devote their life to excelling in any kind of physical endeavor.
A robust ego, ruthlessly competitive streak and unwavering self-belief are all traits our sports obsessed culture cherishes in its athletes – right up until the moment they topple off their pedestal.
“Everybody wants to know what I am on,” Armstrong gravely intoned in a television commercial for Nike in 2001 in which he took aim at critics brazen enough to speculate about his reliance on performance-enhancing drugs.
“What am I on?” he retorted as the camera faithfully captured him subjecting his body to the exhaustive demands of training. “I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”
It was a moment that perfectly encapsulated the cult of the elite athlete: an earnest homage to the apparent sacrifices made by a “hero” who condescendingly dismisses the naysayers with characteristic swagger.
With his confessional with everyone’s favourite shoulder-to-cry-on, Oprah Winfrey, in the can, sources close to Armstrong have suggested his PR offensive might next see him return sponsorship money paid to him by the United States Postal Service.
According to court documents uncovered two years ago, the USPS parted ways with $31.9 million to underwrite Armstrong’s team during its heyday – a revelation that coincided with the unfortunate news they expected to lose $7 billion that same year.
Yet they are not the only organisation now having second thoughts about the wisdom of that particular investment. Numerous companies, including Nike and brewery Anheuser-Busch, have since cut Armstrong loose.
And while no-one involved has been forthcoming about the exact figures involved, Nike’s most recent annual report revealed it has committed $3.2 billion on endorsement deals over the next five years.
Even in an Armstrong-free landscape, that’s an awful lot of cashed up athletes posing as door-to-door salesmen courtesy of our billboards and TV screens.
And what have any of them really learned from Armstrong’s downfall? That it’s ok to be greedy and cocky so long as you don’t get caught?
Even before his reputation was destroyed by the doping scandal, his success was built on the same foundation as any elite athlete: complete and utter self-obsession.
From Olympians to highly decorated cyclists, professional sport has come to demand nothing less than a one-eyed fixation on success.
Athletes are shielded from the tiresome demands of everyday life; their every whim catered for by a member of the small army assembled to assist them achieve their goals.
While it’s an efficient production line responsible for plenty of well-documented victories within the sporting arena, it also cultivates an industry filled with the self-entitled and self-absorbed.
After years of steadfast denials, Armstrong has at last been revealed to be a liar and a cheat.
But it is those who continue to insist on worshipping sport stars in a godlike fashion, and shower them with multi-million dollar contracts, who are the real dopes.
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