When Icons Fall: Why There Is a Difference between Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong
“When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”
One of the more memorable quotes from the movie Nixon, in which Anthony Hopkins standing before a portrait of John F. Kennedy laments his reputational lot in life, is revealing in terms of our reaction to the news that a cherished icon is human after all.
In a blog I posted at the end of December on Tiger Woods I talked about the irony that despite his marital infidelities he is still the most powerful brand in the golf world – perhaps even in all of sports. While I personally believe that his conduct in his personal life draws into question his character, there is no doubt that he is a talented athlete who is consistently at the top of his game. In the end, Woods’ fame is based on his professional life rather than his personal life. Even though we may be disappointed in his choices from a personal life standpoint, his performance on the course has rarely disappointed.
Of course a good part of our admiration for Woods is tied to the fact that his talent is truly rare in that very few people in the world can strike a ball as long and as accurately as he can. In this context, there are not many of us who could or even would aspire to be a Tiger Woods.
However, and this is where the difference in our reaction to the Lance Armstrong scandal comes into play, the disgraced cyclist’s fame was built on his overcoming an obstacle that any one of us could face. I am of course talking about his battle with cancer.
In facing and apparently overcoming cancer to achieve unprecedented fame as a seven time Tour de France champion, the inspiration we found in Armstrong was not as much a result of his sport but his personal courage and determination. If Armstrong we reasoned could overcome cancer to reach the top of his profession, then we too could overcome even the most daunting of challenges to reach the pinnacle of our life’s work. In other words, our stake in Armstrong was much more accessible and personal.
As a result his betrayal was far more egregious in that he did not excel at his profession because he overcame cancer, but because he cheated. And in doing so, he infringed on others ability to generate income by depriving them of a fair opportunity to win.
Even though Tiger messed up his perfect All American celebrity hero status for a period of time, what we saw is what we got in terms of his athletic prowess. Armstrong consistently and maliciously lied to us with each and every pedal of his bike, while soaking in our admiration at the expense of others including fellow biker Greg LeMond.
Tiger received healthy sums from sponsorships, as I am certain that Lance did as well. But Tiger earned the right because he did it honestly. Lance played the all American cyclist hero and took money knowing the truth . . . knowing that he deceived us all.
Regardless of whether you have forgiveness in your heart or not, Armstrong’s brand is forever tarnished. When you lose trust in someone, when others fail because of your lack of integrity, when people hail you as a hero and you publicly humiliate those who know the truth, I see it as a cowardly act. The only road to redemption for Armstrong is if he took this experience and gave back to society. After all, if he truly was repenting his sins, he would pedal to do charitable work instead of looking for his next win!
In the end perhaps our greatest disappointment is that with Armstrong, his image or brand was one towards which we could all aspire. Because of his selfish indiscretions we are now left to wonder why.