When my mother told me Superman wasn't real I immediately began to cry. The tears I cried that day weren't for the death of my hero. I cried because no one with enough power was going to come and save us. -- Geoffrey Canada
The death of a hero, real or fictionalized, is a very traumatic experience for anyone. It's so traumatizing, in fact, that a person's entire world can be destroyed by it. When it comes to sports, more than any other arena, the death of a hero seems to have this affect.
With every scandal, doping-related or otherwise, the heroes of sports are falling from the sky all around us. And whenever a high profile athlete falls, those who once built him or her up seem to abandon them. The natural response has been to step over them as if they aren't there. These all too real individuals become fictionalized through the marginalization of their existence once they've failed to meet the expectations of others. It may be true that with great power comes great responsibility, but does that make those with extraordinary abilities unworthy of forgiveness and redemption?
Falling from grace is a possibility for any athlete. Not because every athlete is tempted to make a bad decision, but more so because they're human. They may have found a way to maximize their abilities and achieve feats others once believed to be impossible, but that doesn't make them immune to temptation.
Every athlete, to a degree, is responsible for how his or her career turns out. That, however, doesn't change the fact that we, as fans and supporters, play a significant role in their meteoric rise to the top of their chosen sport. Every time we cheer for them, every time we purchase merchandise that bears their name and image and with every fan letter we write to them, we give them wings to fly higher and higher. The problem with those wings is they're made of wax. And, when those who wear these wings get too close to the goddess of victory, they melt -- sending them spiraling back down to earth with no one to catch them and no soft place to land.
Why do we do this to our heroes? Why do we build them up and let them fall? Is it because they have failed to live up to our expectations? Or is it because their actions proved they were actually just like us?
It's hard not to look up to athletes. Nearly every time they compete they give performances that provide almost instant enjoyment and entertainment for spectators. No matter what happens in the arena, they're revered as something more than human because they wield courage in a way we only dream of in our own daily lives. They swing courage like a sword cutting down their fears with every play they make. Their triumph over the many faces of opposition, especially when it appears as though all is lost, instills the type of hope that inspires not only dreams, but action.
Athletes are society's best role models and its greatest heroes, demonstrating what it's like to be fully human every time they compete. They play the game of life in a way we want to live it, and don't stop trying until the whistle is blown and the clock stops. This is what makes their achievements so meaningful and why their rise and fall has such a great impact on the world.
Athletes, unlike comic book heroes, bring to life what most won't dare to imagine. They risk everything, including their own lives, in order to achieve physical feats deemed possible only by their fictional counterparts. Athletes possess an ability to overcome their own fears and the doubts of others. Their willingness to try the impossible is what inspires all of us to take risks with our own lives. Their achievements provide us with immediate proof that, impossible truly is nothing when it comes to the limitations of mankind.
We need to return the favor to our heroes. Our favorite athletes needed us to believe in them so that they could rise, and we should show them now that they can believe in us, their fans, too. An athlete doesn't have to win all the time, or break a record, to win our appreciation -- nor do they need to resort to cheating to try to make this happen. Because our athletic heroes are not gods, what they achieve is so inspiring. It's OK to be human, which is why we revere them.
Jon Rankin is a world-class miler with a personal best of 3:54.24. He is co-founder of The Run Project, a website that was created to establish a sense of community amongst runners throughout the world by asking thought-provoking questions about the sport of running and how it's making a difference in their lives, their communities and their countries.