Tuesday, October 23, 2012


What do Jim Thorpe, Muhammad Ali, Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong have in common? Each was stripped of a title, some for their own hubris, others by something far different.

Exactly 100 years ago, in 1912, Jim Thorpe stood, literally and figuratively, on an Olympic pedestal. Winner of both the pentathlon and decathlon in the Summer games of that year, he was the greatest athlete of his era. But in those long ago times, amateur participation was a rigid and harsh mandate. For the sin of having played 2 seasons of semi-professional baseball prior to the 1912 games, Thorpe's medals were taken from him, not to be returned until 1983, 30 years after his death.

In 1967, with the Vietnam War raging, the heavyweight champion of the world, stated that he "ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." For refusing to be inducted into the service of the United States, he was initially deemed a criminal, his title was lost outside the ring, and 3 years of his career vanished before he could return to the sport and to those epic battles with Joe Frazier.

In 1988 and 2000, the world of track and field witnessed greatness in the Olympics from Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, who vied for the titles of fastest man and woman on the planet. Only the ugly world of performing enhancing drugs entered, and Johnson and Jones later were denounced and disgraced, without their Olympic crowns and ultimately, for Jones, with time to ponder her mistakes while in jail.

Each of the stories of these athletes is sad and brutal in its own right. There are tales of Thorpe's struggles financial, and with the bottle, that plagued him until the end of his days. Ali, with all that could have been during his prime years, of greatness not on display. Johnson and Jones, their denials and finger pointing making their ultimate truths so much the worse.

And now Lance Armstrong. Heroic in ways that only story books could imagine. A tribute to man's unbreakable spirit. An athlete who was not just better, but seemingly beyond human. Today he is stripped of far more than his titles. In the elaborate nature of his ruse, in his willingness and even demand that others play not by the rules of the game but by the rules of Armstrong, in all that he meant and in how little he now means, there is a tragedy epic in its proportion.

These athletes form the pantheon of the great who were once acclaimed as the best, and then deemed unworthy. A strange team, bound together by a common thread.  Thorpe and Ali now appear as victims, not demons. For the rest, there has not been and surely will not be redemption or salvation.  And Mr. Armstrong, in the harsh light of today's media spotlight, has captured the gold medal in a category no one wants to win: The most deserving of being deemed the most egregious, and of having his crown removed unceremoniously.

No comments: