I’m just reading David Walsh’s riveting book about his quest to clean up cycling from outside of the peloton and expose the truth behind the legend that was Lance Armstrong. His book makes both a fascinating read and a sad end to the trilogy began with David Millar’s autobiography, followed by Tyler Hamilton’s damming critique. These helped to further push open a door and pave the way for greater transparency and justice to be done (even if they have exposed some major “feet of clay” and toppled some false gods!).

One of the chapter headers in Walsh’s book has the following quote from Ernest Hemingway –“as you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary” which, on first reading, I found a seriously depressing quote but then it got me thinking about what underpins the quote and the need to continue to have heroes throughout your life!

I’m not really sure whether I’ve ever had “heroes” per se, and can’t remember ever having had anyone like that through my childhood and teens. But, there has always been people I’ve liked or admired (though I’m not sure whether I “looked up to” and “copied” them) and respected. Sometimes these were relatively ordinary people who I personally knew and others were people I’d heard or read about.

As I got older there has always been people whose work I admire and believe they do make a difference, some I’m proud to call friends (Mary Frances and Harry Procter spring to mind here), others because of their public persona.

Lance Armstrong was in the latter group, mainly as a result of his apparent phenomenal determination, spirit and tenacity in overcoming personal difficulties to dominate his chosen sport. Others in this category include Austin Healy, Marco Pantani (who also turned out to have feet of clay), and more latterly Kevin Sinfield or Jamie Peacock who lead by example and have a quiet, respectful (and arguably modest) but steely determination to not only “do the right thing” but also “do things right”.

In some ways I’ve been drawn to the maverick (the Amazon explorer Major Fawcett was an early example here and Healy a more recent one) who appeared to have focus and an ability to do something different when it was needed (the “grit in the oyster”) and played by their own rules. In many ways they’ve always “danced to the beat of their own drum”.

A singer whose music I’ve enjoyed since the 1970’s (Waylon Jennings) once asked in “why do all my heroes seem to be cowboys” – a sentiment I feel some affinity with in the broadest sense of the word “cowboy” – or in Waylon and Willie’s case “Outlaws”. However this is no reason to ride roughshod over everyone else and win at all costs or for stars to disrespect their fans.

So why is it that some people who put themselves up as role models appear to have a link missing between their ethical and moral sense of duty and their desire for fame at any cost? Part of the cost (benefit?) of being at the top of your game personally and professionally is that you actually have to “walk the talk” and deliver in public and private – a fact too many people ignore. Maybe there are double standards in society – we are rightly outraged by the teacher who uses their power to seduce a pupil/student, but what about the driving teacher who sleeps with one of their learners?

It is easy to hold people in the public eye up as “heroes” and role models without really knowing what they are like underneath, and in many cases we never see that side of them. The modern philosophy of “spin” is part of the fault here and, as with any form of propaganda, can create both a false impression and the image that the individual wants to create (the old adage “believe their own publicity”).

Which is maybe why it what you do not what you say that is becoming more important – I recently listened to a podcast by Steven Covey who, when talking about trust, said “you can’t talk yourself back into what you behaved yourself out of” which I think is profoundly important.

So is it harder as you get older and still necessary?, I don’t really know. What I do know is that many of the people I respect nowadays have actually, in my opinion, “made a difference” and it is easier to remember the current and more recent ones that the ones from my childhood.