Lance Armstrong

Learning curve: what to do when heroes become zeroes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 2:58pm

It was always easy to spot Ken Ho at school. From Years One to Three he often wore a soccer strip with the number 9 and Fernando Torres' last name on it.

"When he joined Liverpool, Torres proved to be the hit all fans expected," Ken says. "He became the fastest player in the history of Liverpool to score 50 league goals. We, his fans, idolised him."

Teaching primarily in schools that do not require students to wear a formal uniform, I have been able to observe the associations students make through what they wear. Each September I see students in T-shirts featuring their tennis heroes from Wimbledon or the US Open.

Lance Armstrong's struggle with testicular cancer, his feat of winning seven consecutive Tour de France titles and dedication towards his charity Livestrong fuelled an enthusiasm that was evident in the yellow Livestrong wristbands that students wore. It made him a role model for my students at the time.

And throughout my teaching career I have used sports stars to motivate students. Early on I learned to stay abreast of the sports news. It gave me an "in" to start a conversation with my male students. Teaching involves connecting with students, and we build strong and successful relationships based on our own personalities and teaching styles.

So, to this day my lesson preparations include using my husband's interest in sports for lesson openers. Asking a student to change his seat, page or attitude, the way Formula One's Lewis Hamilton changed teams from McLaren to Mercedes or Van Persie moved from Arsenal to Manchester United, is extremely effective.

Even though families provide initial role models for children, Australian education researchers Lindsay Fitzclarence and Christopher Hickey suggest that other role models, especially in sport, have a strong influence on children. Another study led by Warren Payne from the University of Ballarat in Australia showed significant gender differences in the way athletes are viewed as role models, with males being more likely to identify with successful athletes or action stars because of their aggression, strength and ability to get things done. Girls preferred movie and pop stars because of their appearance and social behaviour.

The appeal of sport stars may be far more than just aspirational. Researcher Merrill Melnick noted that sport celebrities have a sphere of influence through the media and are believed to affect the lives of others to such a degree they can shape the values and behaviour of their admirers.

The word "hero" is frequently used in the place of, or to describe role models. What does one do when another hero bites the dust?

"I no longer trust what professional athletes say, even if they tell the media they love the club and won't leave, because in the January transfer window of 2011, it was believed that Torres handed in an official transfer request and subsequently moved to Chelsea," says a disappointed Ken.

Armstrong, who recently admitted he used drugs throughout much of his stellar cycling career, will serve as a cautionary tale about ends and means for students. And journalist David Walsh's indefatigable pursuit of Armstrong's story for 13 years will surely serve to inspire students to persevere.

Armstrong is now out of my bag of teaching props along with former track and field world champion, Marion Jones. She was replaced after her admission that she had lied to a grand jury investigating her use of performance-enhancing drugs at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Then there is Tiger Woods and his extramarital affairs and his subsequent divorce. All of these instances of heroes falling short of what a hero is supposed to be remind me of the words of a Bonnie Tyler song: "Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?" Teachers need sports' perennial search for an inspiring story and a fairy-tale comeback.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School