The Armstrong Myth

With every press release and every rumor I hear it is becoming obvious that the public is going to have to re-evaluate their heroes.

In his well known book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” Joseph Campbell lays out the stages for transformation into a hero.

It starts with a the hero in the ordinary world and who is then “called to adventure.” There are 12 steps (called the monomyth) ending with “the resurrection” and returning home. These steps build up the myth and a fantastic storyline. This gradual transformation and plot is most famously seen in the Star Wars movies and the technique is taught in creative writing classes.

As I look at our older generation of professional riders, either retired or active, you can trace their transformation into a full blown myth. What struck a chord with me is the final step in the myth building process.

“Sometimes the boon is treasure won on the quest, or love, or just the knowledge that the special world exists and can be survived. Sometimes it’s just coming home with a good story to tell.”

According to Campbell the final step is the hardest to accomplish and often isn’t completed. The reason is because the “hero” returns home with his gifts to become a “teacher” to the community. This is why I don’t expect Armstrong to ever admit to doping. He’s not willing to reconcile with the community (cycling or athletics) take responsibility and teach others.

Why can’t Armstrong take responsibility for his actions? To unravel this would be a psychologist’s wet dream. Raised by a single mom who idolized him? Surrounded at a young age by “yes men”? This is way above my understanding of the human psyche and, as mentioned, the purview of a shrink.

I’m hoping those named in the USADA file do have a story to tell, become teachers, and are able to speak freely which brings them peace. Will there be amnesty for those who gave information? I don’t know. Will USADA seek suspensions for the riders that Jonathan Vaughters outed in a forum? Your guess is as good as mine. What needs to happen is the realization that these guys aren’t heroes of mythic proportions. Most of them were caught in something bigger than themselves and the snowball effect took hold. The deeper they went, the harder it was to escape.

The UCI is complicit in this myth building as they were motivated by money. The Armstrong myth was the perfect storm to make that happen. But now that storm has been reduced to a breeze as more and more athletes involved start to speak out. What I can speculate and feel confident about is more riders will corroborate what Landis, Hamilton, and Andreu have said. The result – a myth destroyed.

This will shake some people’s worldviews on what is a hero. Some will steadfastly continue to believe in the false myth as the alternative is too great to comprehend – reputations ruined, money lost, and perhaps even criminal charges.

How people will deal with this collapse of a legend is what psychologists call dissonance reduction. We are torn between the growing evidence that Armstrong cheated and his work in cancer awareness. People will rationalize that the good (cancer awareness) overcomes the bad (cheating). This cognitive dissonance is what ruins Armstrong’s chance at being a true hero – a hero faces and conquers the challenge. Campbell’s hero doesn’t deflect to keep the myth alive.

I’m not suggesting people stop believing in heroes. We need people to aspire to, to be examples. At the same time realize that they are just people and not followed blindly.

These following weeks we’ll see our heroes fall and we need to adjust our own personal view on what constitutes a hero. As many of us reflect on what qualities those are remember the final and hardest step of Campbell’s monomyth is the most important. They must become the teacher otherwise it’s just an uncompleted journey. They must become the teacher otherwise it’s just an uncompleted journey.For those athletes contemplating their next move – be a true hero.


  1. Earl says:

    The hero turns out to be a shyster. Our saint – dig the resurrection vibe! – turns out to be a sinning thief.

    Hard training, battling illness and overcoming? Dude even beat French ass! No wonder he warped into a millionaire, a hero and a champion of the weak. Dude almost made spandex respectable.

    Now imagine that testosterone in a BIG doping program was the cause of the cancer? What if money looted is used to buy politicians and corrupt the UCI?

    One minute we had a fairy tale and now we’re confronted with a fraud. Adjustment takes tiiiime.

    Me? I rate him worse than Madoff. Bernie stole people’s money. Lance stole hope.

    • Matthew says:

      @Drew, well-played. Terry Fox was a badas*, and remains a legend:

      “Fox ran a complete marathon for 143 straight days on an artificial leg that was not designed for long-distance running.”

      $500 million raised to date, and the sort of inspirational message that seems impossibly rare.

      If anyone here hasn’t seen 30 for 30’s documentary on Terry Fox, seek it out.

      • Drew McIntosh says:

        Thanks Matthew. I will have check out the documentary. My 7yr old daughter is in a TF run today and she has been asking who TF was. Cheers!

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