A few days ago the National Post printed an article by Joe O’Connor marking the 70th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s departure from baseball. The piece expresses how Gehrig’s speech on that day stands as perhaps the greatest ever delivered by an athlete, and one of the finest in American history. It is without a doubt that Gehrig left an everlasting impression upon his sport, and North American culture in general. Residing in Canada, and growing up more than 40 years after he left his game, along with many others, I am familiar with his historical feats and general persona. O’Connor does point out though that he existed in a time where the media kept their distance from cultural heroes, particularly those of Gehrig’s nature. Jean Beliveau would seem to be a similar figure within hockey. Somewhat overshadowed by Richard, as Gehrig was by Ruth, there was (and is) never any doubt about the class that is Beliveau.
I certainly want to believe that figures like Gehrig and Beliveau were beyond reproach and epitomized respect to the utmost, simply because of the kind and classy people they were at the core. However, it should be noted that we now live in a climate that does not foster the untouchability of these icons. Specifically, it is noted a few pages later in the same section of the Post, in an article about Dany Heatley, that we like our sports figures to be good or bad, dirty or clean, wrong or right. We are not comfortable with shades of grey, even though they are human, and like us live in worlds of grey.
The Tour de France began on Saturday as well with one of the greatest sports figures of our time – of any time for that matter – returning to the race that made him an icon. It seems that everyone wants to be either in the Lance is good camp or the Lance is bad camp. What about a camp in between? What about a camp that recognizes a few aspects along a continuum of a man that:
-overcame a disease with courage and aggressiveness that is a model for thousands of people fighting today
-trains with a dedication any athlete could aspire to
-is a father
-likely is the most heavily tested athlete ever
-owes a great deal to genetics
-chose to be very narrow minded in the peak of his cycling career around competitions
-is a teammate who recognizes the efforts of his supporters
-places winning as a priority
-has high expectations
-has s sense of humor
-believes in himself with a certain demeanor (to be interpreted as cocky, or confident, as you will)
All of this does not have to add up to either good or bad. Instead, it just all adds up to Armstrong. 80 years ago we likely would not have known nearly as much about Armstrong. If Gehrig played today, we’d likely now every single detail of his private life. I do not want to lessen in any way the figure that Gehrig is. In the end I just wanted to put out a train of thought that asks about how we keep things in perspective. Before we begin to tear into athletes, like Heatley or Armstrong, lets remember that they likely have many characteristics that Gehrig and Beliveau had. It’s likely that they even have role models like them they try to live up to. However, just like their role models were certainly never perfect, neither can they be. Are we asking for perfection? Or are we asking for reality? Or something in between?