Skip to main content

Lance Armstrong and the tenuous nature of heroism

By Zeno Franco, Special to CNN
August 27, 2012 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
After denying the allegations for years, cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. As a result, he was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and an Olympic bronze medal. Click through the gallery for a look at his life and career. After denying the allegations for years, cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. As a result, he was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and an Olympic bronze medal. Click through the gallery for a look at his life and career.
HIDE CAPTION
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
Lance Armstrong's rise and fall
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Zeno Franco: Sometimes we pick heroes who, like Armstrong, transcend physical limitations
  • But heroism a paradox: It's private, but it acquires the heroic label as a public activity, he says
  • At the same time humans hunger for heroic exemplars of heroism, while negating real heroism
  • Franco: If we revel in Armstrong's fall as equalizing, we let ourselves off the hook for heroism

Editor's note: Zeno Franco is an assistant professor in the department of Family & Community Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He studies the social psychology of heroic action and disaster management and is a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Fellow. He is a research adviser for the Heroic Imagination Project, an organization that teaches people how to overcome the natural human tendency to watch and wait in moments of crisis.

(CNN) -- We have many heroes: historic figures who battled for freedom, a man who jumps on the railway tracks to save someone from certain death, a whistle-blower who identifies corruption in government or industry. While these forms of heroism focus on a willingness to take risks in the service of other people or noble ideals, the most ancient notion of heroism focuses on humanity's ability to transcend its own physical limitations.

Occasionally, there is a man or woman who appears to be almost superhuman in strength and physical ability. The Greeks had Achilles and Athena. Up until yesterday, we had Lance Armstrong.

It is unlikely that we will ever know the truth about Lance Armstrong's situation -- was it truly a heroic journey, battling his own body's limits to demonstrate the pinnacle of human capability -- despite the intense personal costs of competing in the Tour de France? Or was it a tainted attempt to win glory? And why can't it ever be simple -- why can't we have a hero who is beyond reproach?

Cyclists say 'good riddance'

As a researcher who focuses on heroic action and the ascription of heroic status, I know that heroism is rarely simple. In fact, in a paper that I authored with my colleagues Kathy Blau and Dr. Philip Zimbardo, we argued that heroism is fundamentally paradoxical.

Zeno Franco
Zeno Franco

First, the action of heroism is typically an intensely private and personal endeavor, even when these actions are taken under the glaring spotlight of the media; but the ascription of heroic status is a fundamentally public activity -- the personal actions taken by one individual are observed and interpreted by others, rightly or wrongly.

If we consider the possibility that Armstrong's 500-plus drug tests were negative as an indicator that he never doped, this is an incredible testament not just to his physical strength, but his moral fortitude. If this is the case, he was able to resist an ongoing temptation that occurred in private, after all the cameras where off and the fans had gone home.

This brings us to our second paradox. It is human nature to at once hunger for and elevate exemplars of heroism, while we simultaneously often want to negate the actual actions of a real hero. One of the implications of our research is that all forms of heroism result in some level of controversy; seeing someone run into a burning building to save another may look heroic to one bystander but foolish to another.

Lance Armstrong faces lifetime ban

A lot rides on the outcome. If a woman who goes into a building is successful in rescuing the trapped victim in the inferno, she is a hero. But if she fails, or she is injured, the risk she took is seen as having been too great, even though the actual risk calculus she took in the moment of action does not change.

A snapshot of Lance Armstrong's future
Can the USADA strip Armstrong's titles?
Cycling: Armstrong faces ban, titles' loss

Moreover, someone willing to act heroically fundamentally challenges our own notions of ourselves. Heroes are, in some ways, subtly dangerous to our sense of social order. Even though they are human, just like the rest of us, their actions are outside of the normal human experience.

If there is a whistleblower in our office -- even if his or her motives are noble -- it is human nature to search for an alternative explanation. Maybe this person was really disgruntled at the boss. With Lance Armstrong, there is a natural tendency, perhaps in all of us, to say, "See, I told you so, no one could be that good."

The sad part of Armstrong's story -- of the titles being stripped away -- is that we lose either way. If he did dope, it is just another example in a recent string of high-profile heroic failures. Joe Paterno's career, built up over many years of good decisions, was washed away by an incident he should have acted on. The captain of the Costa Concordia's momentary lapse led to the deaths of 32 people; abandoning ship before his passengers led to his disgrace.

But if Armstrong didn't dope, it won't matter. The news cycles will have already done their work. There is doubt now, and that is often the beginning of the end of our willingness to attach the word "hero" to someone in our own minds.

We have lost a figure who was willing to challenge the limits of human performance, to show us what we are truly capable of if we put everything we have into accomplishing a seemingly insurmountable goal. Armstrong's story of setbacks and triumphs brought us closer to the essence of the human endeavor.

What's behind the Armstrong headlines?

While it is easy to say that one slip-up means someone can't be hero, it is also important for us to remember that negating all of this person's actions over a few mistakes also lets us off the hook. No hero is without flaws. None of us is. But if we allow ourselves the luxury of saying, "See, he's just like the rest of us," we no longer have to challenge ourselves to perform at the limits of our own personal capability.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Zeno Franco.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT