It hasn’t been a good weekend if you are a household name with the surname Armstrong. On Friday, Lance Armstrong officially threw in the towel in his fight to maintain the seven Tour de France titles he had won by effectively pleading guilty to using drugs. He thus gained the status of villain or fallen hero. Then yesterday, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon died in hospital.
Our reactions to the two Armstrongs underlines how ambiguous we are in conferring hero status to people or to organizations.
Neil Armstrong: the perfect hero
Neal Armstrong of course has preserved his hero status right up until today. He was the first man to achieve something never done before and remained impeccably modest right up to his death. In an interview in 2000, he stated:
“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”
He was then the perfect hero until the last.
Lance Armstrong : the fallen hero
Sporting events always bring us a new share of heroes. These may be gold medal winning athletes such as Ursain Bolt (Jamaica), Mo Farah (Great Britain); Michael Phelps (USA) or Sally Pearson (Australia). They may also be for acts of pioneering such as Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani as the first two female Olympic competitors from Saudi Arabia. Or it may just be for sheer courage from athletes such as the injured Merve Aydin who completed her race 800m race in the London Olympics in tears.
Lance Armstrong was actually a popular figure when he first won the Tour de France. The fact that he had had to overcome cancer made him a person to admire. However, he was never good with the media and the wins accumulated and suspicion grew he began to divide public opinion. His role moved from hero, to ambiguous hero to fallen hero. But it is often these people that fascinate us even more than the Mr.Perfects of the world. If you want proof of that you should just watch Mad Men. Or rather, you should just watch any lady watching Don Draper in Mad Men.
Bill Gates has often complained with a little bitter irony that while he was saving Africa from malaria, the rest of the world was more interested in the latest gadget dreamed up by Apple and Steve Jobs.
Back in 1997 two ladies died within a fortnight of each other. The first, Lady Diana Spencer, had certainly done some good for charitable causes, but most people would agree that she had had an ambiguous life. The second, Mother Theresa, had devoted her entire life to helping the poor in Calcutta. No ambiguity there. Guess which even has kept the media going for over 15 years? Clearly, the public is placing general interest in the life of someone rather than making an objective judgment of the good they have done.
This logic goes to the business world as well. Despite the financial meltdown, bailouts from the taxpayer and public outcry over bonuses (last year the CEO with limited to a mere $9 million) Goldman Sachs has consistently figured as one of Fortune 500 most admired companies. It was 8th in 2010 and last year was ranked number one for people management. Heroes then do not have to be squeaky clean.
In his research on human behavior, Dan Ariely states that people engage in a cost-benefit analysis with regard to honesty. i.e. sometimes we can be very honest and sometimes less so. If this is the case, we may be more interested in ambiguous “heroes” since they conform to this norm. Expect a lot of media coverage on Lance Armstrong after the standard obituaries for Neil.
Even our heroes have heroes
And finally, for admirers of the singer Sting, you might be interested to read the album cover of “Nothing like the Sun.” The British rock star tells the story of how he met by chance the jazz musician, Gil Evans. Sting had grown up listening to his music but by the time they met he had already become an international star with The Police. Evans told Sting that he loved the song “Walking on the Moon.” Sting recounts that after such a compliment he walked home ‘on cloud nine.’ Even our heroes have their own heroes.
Dan Ariely comments Armstrong’s reasoning in the latest doping affair.
International Affairs in Higher Education