Watching Lance Armstrong’s slow fall from public grace is indicative of so much of what I find sad and remiss about the society we’ve built, particularly in recent years.
I blame us for what happened to Armstrong. I blame us for what has happened to many who came before him, and many who will still be put up on that shaky pedestal. We have become a society that values competition over quality, over individuality, over fairness, and over our own sense of humanity and self-respect.
Armstrong is responsible for taking performance-enhancing drugs, for lying about it, and for being a monster to those who tried for years to call him on it. I have no love for the man, but I can’t help wondering if he did what he felt he had to do to compete in a world that emphasizes competition to the point of near insanity.
The most popular programs on television are reality shows that have the sole focus of coming out on top, of not only winning but destroying everyone else. It amazes me that we go to such great lengths to teach our kids about the evils of bullying, then we plop down in front of the TV and turn on shows that feature competitors screaming and scheming, and cameras zooming in closely on people crying in frustration or defeat. I’ve seen more bullying in prime time than I ever did in school.
I believe in doing your best, trying your hardest, striving to win. Competition is fine, even healthy. But when I look around, it’s starting to feel like all I see is a world that values winning, and only winning. Sportsmanship, grace and teamwork are now seen as weaknesses. Would we have continued to cheer for Lance Armstrong if he started losing races? As his body started to age and fail him? Or would we have relegated him to has-been status with barely a backward glance as we immediately started looking for the Next Big Thing we could all live vicariously though? We are enjoying the self-righteous feeling of booing and hissing in his direction, because we haven’t asked ourselves what the hell is wrong with this picture.
As a journalist who has seen my own field change dramatically in recent years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the damage this win-or-die mentality can do. When I was a young journalist, we focused on accuracy, on balance, on good writing. Now that the digital age has taken over, accuracy and balance come in second place. To most journalists these days, it doesn’t matter if you’re accurate or balanced, as long as you’re first. CNN took a well-deserved beating when they initially misidentified the Newtown shooter. They heard a name, and they ran with it because they wanted to be the first out with the story. They wanted to win, and they lost. Armstrong wanted to win, and he lost.
Our kids are pushed beyond their limits to succeed in sports and academics. Our workplaces are rife with people who will stab anyone else in the back to get ahead. It’s a national obsession, this drive to win, and it’s costing us. Until we are willing to take a step back and admit that we’ve got a giant problem here, we’re doomed to endless, spectacular failures like Armstrong’s. It’s quite a legacy we’re building.