This was originally posted for Privateer, a cycling webzine, the owners of which I met while on location in Cape Town, SA. Their love of sport and competition inspired much of this article, they showed me the back roads of South Africa cycling and I will forever be grateful. The context of this has changed but my sentiment has not. http://privateer.co.za/heroes/
A good friend/foe a while ago told me to never meet my heroes, that it was in my best interest to view and admire from afar, essentially saying the truth isn’t what it always seems. Most people get distraught when they find out what they held high is not on the plane of existence once believed, I believe my acquaintance saved me some heartache and it’s my attempt to do the same.
Heroes have had their place in our culture and even beyond for hundreds even thousands of years, it’s easy to point out the Greek mythology or exploits of Homer, but we can track the wall paintings of fabled hunters most likely occurring before complex speech. As children we grow up reading about men greater than the ones in our own lives, we see what are fathers and their fathers look to for example, and if we are lucky they provided an example of what to strive for. It’s likely that heroes have never existed, to hear the courage of men fighting the Gods only to prevail unassisted because it was the right thing to do, is a bit unlikely knowing what we know about human nature. The point isn’t to break you of your childhood romanticism in fictional literature; I would say quite the opposite. A good fable mirrors reality, it uses details believable enough to give awe while suspending just enough belief of yourself to cause reflection: “how would have I reacted to this impossible situation?” Imagine the countless action movies based on those rising above themselves for a moment only to be exalted by the audience, and it doesn’t stop at the character either we celebrate the person who “pretends” to be a hero as well.
Sport and competition specifically gives us these things in real-time, and our heroes are only but a TV screen, fence or even a roadside away. So close that the perspiration from the effort reignites our belief in the Demi-gods. To watch a feat of world-class athletic ability first-hand is to all but witness one dipped in the river Styx. Sport is the greatest outlet for human potential just short of survival in war. And it’s because of this that it is also the most highly scrutinized. You can reduce anyone and anything to nothing if the rules are arbitrary enough, and the proctor determined enough. Our society’s love of building heroes is just over shadowed by the entertainment we get by bringing them down.
At this point you might think you know what I’m getting at, and I’ll stop you because you are wrong. If one thing should be clear it’s that however arbitrary the rules are, if they are written and agreed upon then breaking them in any manner is cheating and should be handled accordingly. There are many arguments for changing rules and if enough people agree then they should be amended, until that point anything stated stands. I don’t have much to say about doping partially because I can’t comprehend the situational basis at which it occurs. As an example: Imagine growing up in say Kenya, or any other competitive east African distance running country. The poverty level that winning 1 marathon can bring you out of is shocking. And there are many examples of other countries where sport is one of the only exports. Do you really expect to hold someone to the same ethics whose entire family and well-being are dependent on world-class performance?
It’s just a question I don’t have an answer or an argument to go either way, it just makes it easier for me to understand reading headlines of Kenyan doping scandals. “Doping” has a very villainous stigma that comes with it but if our rules are arbitrary then why are we ok with our heroes bending some and hanging them with others. To contrast, I’ll use the cyclist Mark Cavendish as an example; he is regarded as one of the best riders of all time tacking up more wins in the Tour de France than anyone else. He is truly something special and awe-inspiring to anyone who pedals a bike. He was blasted last year for receiving too much help on the mountain stages, and by “too much help” I mean literally he was pushed from a motorized vehicle. My frustration comes to boil not because of the athletes competing but from the commentators burning at the stake. If we are talking cheating I think getting pushed up a climb by an automobile allowing one to make the time cut in order to win later stages is about as close to the line as cheating as one could get. And in comparison at least the guy injecting his own blood to win pedaled his own bike.
I’ve seen the arguments and all the “heart-breaks” of fans feeling free to express their out rage, or conversely the defenders and those asking for an open season of chemical freaks. After the dust settles I’m reminded of Fignons’ book ‘we we’re carefree’ in which he talks of a different era, a “golden age” as it were although the cheating was still there, and in some respects more prominent, the difference for me is that they believed in great men doing great things. Which has me shaking my head most days when I realize I don’t know too many “great men”. In contrast I know a lot of men who complain, that claim they deserve to be born in a different time and that would make them great. That if their situation was different then they could do great things. That anyone is entitled to greatness is a mistake of our society, we have missed the boat at teaching our young what truly makes one strong or builds endurance, character or what heroes are made of for that matter, and that is the act of overcoming adversity. Heroes are drawn out of circumstance not created out of arbitrary rules, if you remove the reward from any scenario are you still courageous and worthy of uplift?
I have been fortunate/unfortunate enough to not only meet one of my heroes but to work for him as well, to spend time conversing and exchanging ideas. I read his exploits and adventures years before I met him. Those events cast a large shadow and dulled my view. Seeing what you hold as a “hero” through enough events can give you either the fuel to crucify or the ambition to exalt whom you personify. The choice of where we place people on our totem is always up to us. His circumstance shaped his whole being, but he is a hero of mine because he consistently rises above the situation put in front of him and I also ignore in large parts his failings. He had in part fulfilled what my father had missed: to inspire me to be greater than I think I am capable. Interestingly enough if we can find those that lead by example whether on the bike, in the gym or just in life itself, than they can show us more is possible. And that is the duty of fables, and the work of heroes is to drag us up from the depths, to show an example of over-coming. In turn it is in our best interest as mortals to not burn the very delicate tinder of inspiration we are given. It is easy to prove that the story Conan is completely fabricated, but the story of slaves becoming conquerors and kings has its place in our world. Sport is the globe on which these fairy-tales are told and we can easily dismiss the stimulus handed to us, but belief in great men doing great things allows us the opportunity to do the same for ourselves.