Can an athlete be bigger than the sport?

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim

Growing up, I idolized Julius Erving from the Philadelphia Seventy Sixers. I would argue to anyone who listened that Dr. J was the greatest player who ever lived and all NBA players present, and future owed a debt of gratitude to the man who brought the NBA into the realm of big-time sports.

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One day while I was raving about the Doctor my father said one of life’s truisms. “An athlete, no matter how good, can not be bigger than his sport.” When Dr. J retired, the sport moved on. The ‘air’ to the throne, Michael Jordan continued where Erving left off. Even when Jordan retired, the sport continued to thrive.

A look at all sports shows this to be true. Big names come and go but the sport moves on. In cycling, we had Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Jaques Anquetil, and of course Dr E, Eddy Merckx. All men dominated their sport then retired. The sport lived on. Then came Lance Armstrong.

In college, I had a Marketing professor that had his own truism. “There is always an exception that proves the rule.” Is Lance Armstrong that exception? Let me lay out the topics for discussion. All athletes that I mentioned dominated the other athletes in their sport. Therefore, their dominance is based on athletic talent only. Lance’s dominance went beyond his ability compared to his competitors. He engaged the current authorities of cycling as an equal. And one could say, he dominated them too (more on that in a minute).

Athletes are known and associated inexorably with their sport. Therefore, the sports fortunes are their fortunes and visa versa. Is Lance a cancer-fighting, celebrity who cycles? Is he a famous cyclist who has a cancer foundation?

When the biggest names in sports retired, their sport lived on and in most cases thrived. There is no doubt that cycling is on life support at the moment. The moment Lance left, the power struggle that ensued has severely wounded cycling. Is it a coincidence that in the year immediately before and after Lance, our sport was in a precarious situation? During the Lance years, the sport prospered and there was peace across all fronts. Did Lance have the power to dominate the Grand Tours and the UCI forcing them to play nice? I could make the argument the war started out of a fight for the power vacuum left by the retirement of Lance Armstrong.

I’m not sure where I fall on this issue. Lance might be the first athlete to transcend his sport to a level that he struck fear or awe into the hearts of all involved. He managed to become bigger than the sport. If that is the case, then there is no precedent on what should happen now.

I do know that the mere mention of Lance Armstrong generally brings forth a lively discussion. I am hoping for that in the comments section.

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3 Responses to Can an athlete be bigger than the sport?

  1. Ed says:

    Jim, you may have hit on something here but, while cycling’s implosion seems to have been coincident with Lance’s departure, maybe it’s a matter of his getting out just in time to avoid the s–t hitting the fan. While Lance would have weathered the doping inquisitions better than most due to his enormous appeal here in the U.S., I’m not convinced the sport would have been in better shape today if Lance had stayed.

    Lance would have been swept up in the hysteria like everybody else but his singular, bigger-than-life celebrity would have, I think, precipitated through media scrutiny, a flushing out of all the problems with testing, appeals, punishment etc. and perhaps we would have a working system in place today rather than the chaotic, draconian dictatorship that continues to plague the sport.

    My answer to the question: Lance is not bigger than cycling but he’s big enough that his presence in a storm could change the way cycling operates in dramatic and long-lasting ways that no other cyclist could.

  2. Ed says:

    I seem to have contradicted myself before. Allow me to clarify: I meant to say that I don’t think Lance is bigger than cycling and that he would have been the target/victim of doping unquiry(he already was). That being said, his being caught up in the doping round-up would have focused media attention like no other cyclinst, possibly affecting a change. I’m not sure if that’s clearer but there it is.

  3. Tanja says:

    I think Lance stopped at the right time. he was allready hunted by the media, and if he had been riding when the OP-scandal broke out, they would have also hung him with the others…
    And agree with Ed, if Lance wanted, he could help the sport to get it together..

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