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Feats of clay
The fall of Lance Armstrong and Rajat Gupta teaches us one sad fact about global heroes. That they come with a cautionary note - use before expiry date.
I remember an old man I once new. He was a young 70 and wise beyond his years. He often spoke cryptically. He once told me "Memories and perpetual machines should never break down. When they do history begins. " I was puzzled and I asked him to explain. He asked me in turn "When does a boy grow up?" I replied: "When he realises that his father, no matter how competent or good, is just an ordinary man. " Yet I realised one can grow and live with that and even help your father when he is aging.
My friend asked me to think further. "And the next moment of tragedy?" I said: "When the hero you worshipped lets you down. " I realised some of my heroes remained the legends they were. Emil Zatopek, the runner remained a hero, even when the communist regime humiliated him for his dissent. My friend observed: "Fans in sport are worse than religious believers. They crumble when the hero falls. "
The fall of the modern sports hero deserves a sociology of its own. I remember when Ben Johnson, the 1988 Olympic 100 metre champ, was found guilty of taking banned drugs. Johnson got away lightly. He was not yet a legend, maybe a star but stars need to mature. Johnson fell before he became legend and next to those he outran, he was a nowhere man.
Life is not always so muted. I remember watching Mohammed Azharuddin at an airport. He was all there, fit, an elected MP;his collar at the back of his neck was perked up cockily. Yet he was treated like a non-person, a has-been. People spoke of him in the past even in his presence. They were ruthless.
Azhar betrayed the legend of Azharuddin. He was all that a cricketer could be, fit, generous, in love with a film star, a legendary fielder, a great batsman and an icon of Indian Unity, yet he smashed it all in destroying his own world. Suddenly he was Azhar, the ordinary. No one stopped even for an autograph. The tragedy of modern sport is the tragedy of erasure. Azhar as a mnemonic signals the sadness of yesterday's newspaper. It reminded me of a word that haunted advertisements of my childhood. The word was "sanforized". It referred to a brand were clothes were pre-shrunk. I always wished Mohammed Azharuddin, my hero, had been sanforized.
Justice was quick for Azharuddin but the tragedy of Lance Armstrong stretched like a Hindi TV serial. Armstrong had a strange gift. He could create huge pockets of affection. One side-story is his iconic role in Yuvaraj Singh's recovery. Yuvi talked of being in touch with Armstrong. Between his mother's faith and Armstrong's encouragement, he crafted a miraculous return. Armstrong is doubly heroic. He fights cancer and he helps others fight cancer. The Indian heart flows towards the stalwart.
When the US doping committee declared Armstrong as tainted, it first sounded like an inquisition. One felt Armstrong was twice cursed;first, with cancer, second, through an assault on his integrity. His fans were outraged. As the truth seeped in, Armstrong became a spider web of dishonesty. One wondered if he was a Jekyll and Hyde creature, playing his own dirty double. Yet as the facts spread like a depressing fog, one realised the backstage Armstrong was a manipulative creature. Last reports indicate that Armstrong erased his own past of Tour De France victories from Twitter. The battle to preserve his reputation must have been the toughest ride of all. Think of another example.
For parochial India, the Rajat Gupta story was the end of a dream. For middle class India, Rajat Gupta had done it all from a stint at IIT to a dream run at McKinsey. He was the archetypal Indian technocrat, the legend who was too true to be true. He was founder of ISB. He established the Rajat Gupta centre at IIT Mumbai and he was a consultant to corporate dons. Gupta was a Sam Pitroda magnified, the Indian Midas whose magic touch was unquestionable.
Add to that, the facts that Gupta was a philanthropist, a good family man. One wonders whether Rajat Gupta's act was one of bad judgement. He made a mistake, even an error but his image does not seem tainted. 'Dented', is one's first sympathetic reaction.
I wonder if an Indian court would have sentenced him. If it was a Bollywood movie, Rajat Gupta would have waved to the acclamation of the crowd. Sentenced by an American jury, one suddenly realised that he had feet of clay. One felt a touch of pity for him. One also felt heroes abroad are substitutable. Some replaced Gupta as hero with the upcoming legend of US attorney Preet Bharara. The executive yielded to the lawyer in the American Valhalla of success. One felt one must go on, that heroes are like bits of plasticine. As they disfigure, one must look for new dreams, new heroes. When heroes drop like nine pins in this globalised world, one is tempted to keep one's icons domestic. A father or an uncle, a school teacher, remains modest but intact. These global heroes are brands that seem to require a cautionary note. The logic of global life demands that one use cautionary labels, "Use before expiry date. " Time has run out on Gupta, Armstrong and other icons. One now waits to see who is next on the firing line.
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