In a crucial episode of the epic, Mahabharat, the god Dharma, disguised as a giant stork, asks Yudhisthir, “What is amazing?” Yudhisthir replies, “Every moment human beings are dying and yet human beings seek immortality. This is amazing.’’ Embedded in this quest for immortality is the hint of tragedy. Often at the very moment that a human being feels he has grasped immortality, life catches up with him and immortality proves to be elusive. A good illustration of the point being made is the career of Lance Armstrong who won the Tour de France not once but seven times. The Tour de France involves covering on a cycle a distance of 3,200 kilometres in 21 days. The feat has been compared to “climbing three Everests”. Mr Armstrong won the tournament even while he was battling cancer. The winning of the Tour de France seven times, with or without battling cancer, made Mr Armstrong one of the greatest athletes of all times — many would argue, the greatest.
Mr Armstrong’s encounter with fame and immortality was, however, very brief. His sporting career had always been dogged by allegations regarding the taking of performance-enhancing drugs. The charges were never proved through a doping test, but they were backed by other supporting evidence. Last year, Mr Armstrong decided not to fight the charges. As a result, the United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped him of all his titles. Officially, thus, Mr Armstrong has achieved nothing: he is no athlete at all. But worse was to follow. Last week, he confessed that he had indeed imbibed drugs to win the Tour de France. He had taken drugs all seven times that he had won. He added that winning a competition like the Tour de France that tests stamina, endurance, skill and fitness multiple times would not have been possible without the help of performance- enhancing drugs. Mr Armstrong now regrets what he did, and also the fact that for many years he had perpetuated a lie. The expression of regret will not reclaim for him his moment of fame and immortality. There is something terribly tragic in all this. Mr Armstrong believed he should “win at all costs”. This is how immortality beckoned to him. Perhaps it was inevitable, under the circumstances, that immortality was delivered to him laced by an intoxicant. The fall was an integral part of the quest.
A fallen star, like a falling one, is an omen. Mr Armstrong’s nemesis has obvious lessons for those who want to win in sports and in life “at all costs”. The price of that is often so heavy as to make the triumph Pyrrhic, as Mr Armstrong’s was. A certain fragility and transcience are part of the human condition. To overcome these with or without the help of drugs is always fraught with dangers. Yet, human beings try it again and again. That is the wonder of it.