The Last Dance, Lance and legacy – further thoughts on racism
In the wake of global protests about racism and injustice, the legacies of historical figures, from Edward Colston in the UK, King Leopold in Belgium to Captain Cook in Australia, are being debated with passion and at times anger.
I am an avid sports fan and have enjoyed binge watching sports documentaries during the lockdown. Two shows: Lance (about fallen superstar Lance Armstrong) and The Last Dance (about basketball legend Michael Jordan) have been particularly illuminating and when reflecting on them in the context of historical "legends” and their legacies, some comparisons can be made. Here's how…
Starting with Netflix’s brilliant Michael Jordan documentary, Jordan is widely seen as a force to reckon with on the basketball court. No other player in the last two decades has matched his talent. He amassed a fortune, developed a globally-recognised brand and starred in family movies such as Space Jam, all the while maintaining a squeaky clean persona. Upon deeper inspection, however, a more nuanced side to the legend is shown in the documentary.
We see a man who bullied and threatened his teammates (the very people who helped him achieve his greatness), a man who appeared indifferent to the suffering of black Americans (at the time), and a man who was often selfish with his influence.
This has thrown up questions about Jordan’s peerless talent – he is widely recognised as one of the greatest sportsman ever – versus his abrasive leadership style, accusations of workplace bullying and his passivity on matters of social injustice. In short, a man who is both very good and very bad. My point here is that both narratives are true and are valid components of his legacy.
We have a similar story with Lance Armstrong. Once lauded as the next great transcendent sporting icon that ‘carried the torch’ post-Jordan, Lance Armstrong’s cycling career ended in spectacular disgrace. The two-part ESPN documentary Lance documents his magnificent achievements: a 7-times winner of the Tour de France, ultimately stripped of his titles as the doping scandal unravelled.
The documentary goes further to portray Lance as a serial bully to colleagues and critics (such as the journalists who raised suspicions about his doping and were often threatened with litigation and reputational ruin) alike, some of whom remain deeply wounded by his actions two decades later.
It is easy to dismiss Lance as a drug cheat. But he also did a tremendous amount of good. At one point in time millions of people proudly wore the Livestrong rubber bracelet on their wrist. This was a direct ode to Lance’s victory over testicular cancer and the incredible inspiration he provided to others in their fight against cancer around the world. His is thus, like Jordan’s, a nuanced legacy, one that does not lend itself to a simple hero or villain status. One who is both very good and very bad.
And so onto the divisive statues that have been the topic of recent public debate around the world. Some people argue that these "legends" have undoubtedly done great and positive things for their countries and their people, but they have also done wrong, in this case via links to slavery, social injustice or imperialism. Each statued figure will have his/her own story - good and bad, which will need to be addressed with caution and sensitivity. The issues around this topic are complex and there are other people who have and will continue to address this is in a more informed and eloquent manner than me.
The perspective I would like to add into the debate is that just like Michael and Lance, and every other human being, these were inherently flawed individuals with plenty of baggage that accompanied their achievements in life. Granted, we as a society should examine why it is necessary to portray historical figures in this almost superhuman manner in the first place. There are ways of celebrating human achievement without resorting to commemorative statues, plaques and busts.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
My hope is that we can sit with these complexities and move away from the polarising and simple depictions that cause division and risk violence.
"Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends."
However, the pent-up anger being expressed at the moment risks an important message being lost. One of my many concerns on this is that young people will be discouraged from stepping up and releasing their full potential, if they operate out of a position of fear; a fear that they will at some point risk being dragged down and their reputations destroyed when they inevitably make mistakes.
At the Mind and Soul Foundation we are committed to supporting youth mental health at this incredibly challenging time and promoting unity where confrontation seems to be the natural choice.
(For more on this topic, go to Chi-Chi Obuaya's article "Racism, action and empathy: Responding to the death of George Floyd")