The world’s greatest storytellers allow us to better understand human beings and their complexities through fiction. Lance Armstrong’s sad fall from grace since his admission of doping is a true story, but it could just as easily been torn from the great writers’ notebooks. Armstrong symbolizes what students in high school and college English classes learn to identify as a Tragic Hero, or a character in a story who seems to have everything on the outside — respect, fame, and perhaps money — but because of a single fatal flaw these characters bring about their own ruin. The Greeks wrote about this timeless theme; Shakespeare did too. In fact, no Shakespearean character could more strongly be linked to Lance Armstrong than Macbeth. In both instances, greed was their tragic flaw.
Macbeth and Lance Armstrong were both heroes in their own right. Set 500 years ago, Macbeth was a respected leader in King Duncan’s Scottish army with a seemingly loving wife by his side. Lance Armstrong was a modern American icon. Diagnosed in his early 20s with Stage 3 testicular cancer, Armstrong not only beat cancer, he went on to win the greatest cycling race in the world, the Tour de France, not just once, but seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005. With his charisma and young family by his side, the whole world rooted for him. His charitable foundation, Livestrong, has raised more than $500 million for cancer research during this time.
Yet both men succumbed to the same tragic flaw — greed from their blind ambition. Macbeth and his wife weren’t satisfied with the power they already held; they wouldn’t stop until they ruled the kingdom and would go to any length to make this happen. Lady Macbeth coerced her husband to kill King Duncan and then King Macbeth kept lying and killing in order to keep his new throne secure. His conscience finally caught up to him, though, and would ultimately be his prison.
Armstrong’s chief desire was to be the best in the cycling sport, even if that meant cheating by taking banned performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong may not have killed literally, but he bullied, sued and killed the careers of innocent people, mostly friends and teammates, who had no other choice than to speak out. He “sued so many people he can’t even remember who he sued,” so he said in the tell-all with Oprah Winfrey, all the while knowing those people were telling the truth. There was no guilt at the time, he said, though. Instead Armstrong thought, “You’re coming in on my territory. I’m gonna fight back.”
Armstrong was the admitted sole mastermind behind his deeds. It’s come to light he began taking steroids even before his first Tour de France win in 1999 and continued to cheat for every one thereafter. When asked if he felt guilt during the years he doped, he said no.
A tragic hero’s downfall often ends in death, as it did with Macbeth. In Armstrong’s case, he has lost everything — his Tour de France titles, sponsors, supporters, money, respect. Now being accused of fraud, drug trafficking, witness tampering and using banned substances, his fate is still unknown. Still, he called his punishment of being forced to resign from the Livestrong Board of Directors “his lowest point,” and being barred from competing in any sanctioned sports for the rest of his life “a death sentence.”
When asked if he thinks these punishments are too severe, Armstrong said, “Yes.” He didn’t feel sorry then; he’s only sorry he got caught.
Tragic characters usually evoke sympathy. We saw Macbeth’s desperation as his wife egged him on. And as mad as we are at Armstrong, it is sad to see what we thought of as one of the greatest American success stories was all just a sham.
This is one of those times I miss teaching, especially teaching “Macbeth.” Still, it’s a reminder that just as the great writers do for us in their works, we can highlight the light and dark sides of human nature to our kids by sharing stories in books, but even more so, by looking with them at the world they live in today.
Julie Samrick is the mother of four children and a resident of El Dorado Hills. She is also the founder of Kid Focused, a site devoted to current children’s issues.