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HETRICK: On Armstrong, Pistorius and the risk of celebrity heroes

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Bruce Hetrick

In 2006, I was invited to attend a news conference at the Indiana University School of Medicine. The news involved my late wife’s oncologist, Dr. Larry Einhorn.

I sat beside John Cleland, a high school biology teacher from Zionsville who, long ago, had the guts to take an experimental chemotherapy cocktail developed by Einhorn in hopes of treating advanced testicular cancer.

It worked.

Because Einhorn’s discovery saved Cleland and others, testicular cancer moved from deadly-disease status to a cure rate north of 95 percent.

John Cleland is one of my heroes. When the odds were stacked against him, he took a risk for himself and others, tried an experimental drug, and helped save many lives.

Larry Einhorn is one of my heroes. When the routine treatment wasn’t working, he didn’t say, “Tough luck, you’re a goner.” He said, “I’ve been tinkering with something; would you be willing to try it?”

But the news conference that day involved another of my heroes at the time—a fellow named Lance Armstrong who’d had his life saved by Einhorn’s cocktail, who’d benefited from Cleland’s bravery, and who’d gone on to bicycling fame and fortune.

Along the way, Armstrong had also remembered the good medicine that made it all possible. He’d launched a cancer-fighting foundation, written an inspirational book, and gone on the lecture circuit to help others with cancer.

So there I sat with John Cleland watching Larry Einhorn land a $1.5 million endowed chair from what was then called the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Three heroes in one day. I felt blessed.

Fast forward to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

As a person with disabilities, I fell hard for the Oscar Pistorius story.

The South African sprinter, born without fibulas, had amputations below the knees in both legs.

Thanks to innovative prostheses, Pistorius became a world-class Paralympics athlete.

Then, after a court battle over whether his artificial legs gave him an unfair advantage, he made it to the Olympics, where he competed in the men’s 400-meter race and on South Africa’s 4x400-meter relay team.

The Blade Runner was my hero, too.

The world loves overcoming-the-obstacles stories: Climbing out of poverty. Beating cancer. Running when you’ve been told you’ll never walk.

Climb the pedestal, we say. Film an up-close-and-personal video. Sign a few multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals. Score some six-figure appearance fees. Endorse some products. Champion your favorite causes. Run for office. Give some speeches. Grace the cover of our magazine. Launch your own foundation.

But sometimes, humanity mars the climb up the ladder to sainthood.

Armstrong, of course, has now been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and ousted from competitive sports for blood doping and the use of performance-enhancing drugs. After years of denials and even lawsuits against those who questioned him, he’s confessed these sins at the altar of Oprah Winfrey.

Le champion is now le liar and le cheater.

Then, by accident or design (yet to be determined), Pistorius last week shot his girlfriend to death as she apparently cowered in a locked bathroom in his home.

The Blade Runner, said the tabloids, is now the Blade Gunner.

Dramatic falls from grace are nothing new and they’re not going to stop. There aren’t a lot of Boy Scouts out there. (Heck, even the Boy Scouts are tainted by sex scandals and discrimination.)

So the question becomes whether marketers and not-for-profits want to tie their reputations and causes to the hero du jour, and whether the potential reward outweighs the possible risk.

While Armstrong’s sponsors pulled the plug on the once-renowned king of the yellow jersey, Einhorn says his cancer story outweighs the cycling scandal—among cancer patients, at least.

“We still have patients who, when starting chemotherapy for testicular cancer, come in carrying that [Armstrong autobiography] book,” Einhorn told USA Today. “It’s like someone religious carrying a Bible to help them through a very difficult period of time.”

Einhorn, who’s now Livestrong Foundation professor of oncology, said Armstrong’s story presents a dilemma.

“If he didn’t do doping, he would not have been competitive in his sport. There would have been no foundation,” Einhorn told USA Today. “There would have been no cancer survivorship talk if he had not entered the Tour de France or [if he had] finished 17th or 18th.”

But, said Einhorn, that “doesn’t mean that the ends justify the means.”

“There are many different ways that people are heroic,” Einhorn said. “Lance cheated in the sport, but because he cheated in the sport, he became a hero to countless thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people and made such a big difference in their lives, and also in their quantity of survival as well as their quality of survival. That will be his legacy.”

Maybe. But I’m skeptical. So for now, I’m skipping celebrities and sticking with real-world heroes such as Einhorn and Cleland.•

__________

Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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