Radical Orthodoxy and Lance Armstrong: Shedding Light on Sport as Religious Experience

Article excerpt

After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave--a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.

--Nietzsche (1974, 167)

Popular media characterizations of the contemporary athlete hero-icon perpetuate a hegemonic moral value system that supports Western sport ideology. With a high majority of nonacademic attention focused on observable athlete moral behaviours, increasingly sport and religious studies scholars are regarding the moral values created and maintained in contemporary sport (Grimshaw 2000; Higgs and Braswell 2004; Hoffman 2010; Bauman 1998; Price 2001; Ward 2000; Watson and White 2007; White 2008). Yet by examining the religious language, images, and popular ideals observed around athletic hero-icons, cultural sport scholars would find evidence that many sport stars are presented using theological textuality, which then has the potential to deliver religiously significant meaning for millions. The question then becomes, how and what do we make of millions of people finding religious and spiritually significant experiences through sport? I believe that examining the conditions by which Americans use sport and hero-icons to fill religious and spiritual needs parallels the ways these needs have been historically satisfied by traditional religious experiences. Using radical orthodoxy scholarship, I aim to draw connections between the postmodern religious understandings of this scholarship and the ways in which iconic hero athletes can function through contemporary media outlets and within popular culture as spiritually and religiously significant. The example of American cyclist and philanthropist Lance Armstrong makes clear the often hegemonic metaphysical function of sport and athletes in people's lives. As Bruce Forbes writes, "Notice that popular culture and traditional religions function in similar ways, providing meaning and helping people cope with life's problems" (Forbes and Mahan 2005, 15) The Lance Armstrong Foundation reflects commonality between the popular cultural activities of sport and religion by stating its aim is to "unite, inspire and empower people affected by cancer." This mission statement also evinces how Armstrong's media image functions in inspirational and spiritually meaningful ways.

This essay offers a preliminary examination of the usefulness contemporary American sport and its representations and practices have for the radical orthodoxy project in discovering the role of religion (particularly Christianity) in postmodernity. I will highlight examples of Lance Armstrong's popular media image between 1999 and 2010 that make clear the claims of radical orthodoxy, and I will discuss why his image during this period is unique to contemporary American popular culture, reflecting a postmodern theology.

Sports and athletic hero-icons are not, of course, real saviours, nor are they divine. Michael Grimshaw (2000) discusses that "while our 'idolatry' in sport is an attempt to present our 'fallible gods' as perfect, in fact it is their very fallibility that results in our giving them a special status, for what they (though recognizably fallible) can still achieve" (91). While my current essay deals with what I term "athletic hero-icons," I simply mean athletes who have been elevated by contemporary popular culture to represent some ideal (whatever it may be), and in Armstrong's case, his image has come to represent an athlete par-excellence and philanthropic moral ideal in American popular culture. To highlight the dualism surrounding such an athlete hero-icon, Armstrong's fallibility is detailed by fellow US Postal Service teammate Floyd Landis. He acknowledged the intense and individualistic competitive nature of Armstrong stating, "Lance doesn't want a hug. He just wants to kick everyone's ass" (Moore 2009). Yet, in his more public persona, a softer more caring narrative is told, where he cares for others and competes for cancer-related causes. …