Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2013, 3:01 pm

Editorial: Agony and the ecstacy

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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

Since long before ABC's Wide World of Sports had Americans glued to their TV screens, humans have tuned into the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

Though some trace the beginning of athletic competition to the first Olympics in 776 BC, evidence of the importance of sports dates back to cave paintings. We can't prove it, but we're willing to bet that even back then athlete-heroes sometimes had feet of clay. But it probably took fans an awful long time to learn about it, if they ever did.

In today's information age, fueled by instant communication, our heroes' major sins, foibles and personal peccadilloes are broadcast far, wide, immediately, and constantly. We'd be tempted to turn away in disgust if it weren't for the fact that for every sordid story that brings sports nation crashing down, there is another to lift it up again.

How can we say that after a terrible week that confirmed our worst suspicions about Lance Armstrong cheating his way to Tour de France titles, and uncovered news that made a mockery of the support showered on Notre Dame's Manti Te'o after the tragic death of his girlfriend turned out to be a cruel hoax?

Because it also brought us the story of Rock Island native Madison Keys who again stirred our imagination as she burst upon the international tennis stage. And it touched our hearts with wonderful stories about the greatest Cardinal and one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived, Stan Musial. The fact that more than half a century separates their athletic careers is testament to the lasting appeal of sports.

At just 17, Ms. Keys, who first dreamed her tennis dreams as a child in the Quad-Cities, took center stage at one of tennis' biggest events.

Ranked 105th in the world and playing as a wild card, she made it to the third round of the Australian Open, giving fifth-seed Angelique Kerber a run for her money before youth gave way to experience and unforced errors did her in.

Fans of tennis share the excitement of Olympic and major champion Lindsay Davenport who has seen Ms. Keys "incredible potential."

She tweeted, "Best hope I've seen for U.S. since Williams." Regardless of which sister she meant, Venus or Serena, it was a flattering comparison. What thefuture holds for Ms. Keys remains to be seen, but for now it's fun, and yes, inspiring to watch her try to fulfill a dream.

Though he was 75 years her senior and famous for an entirely different sport, she would also be wise to emulate Stan Musial who is being mourned nationwide after his death this week.

One of the many remarkable things about Stan The Man is that he managed to live 92 years in the public eye without his star ever dimming.

The St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer made many American boys, and yes, some girls, love the game of baseball. And he gave them a role model to look up to, not just in the way he played the game he retired from in 1963, but in how he chose to live his life.

The overwhelming evidence of a life generously lived suggests that we should rethink the warning that athletes should not and cannot be heroes and role models.Yes, they can. But not all of them. Not even most of them. The onus is on us to choose wisely and to help our children do so, as well.
"Sports do not build character. They reveal it," said the famed sportswriter and columnist Heywood Broun. And society -- and their fans -- will forever judge them accordingly.

Enthusiasts who have lately found themselves too often apologizing for their devotion to sports, should remember these wise words from a living sports legend and ground-breaking woman, tennis star Billie Jean King:
"Sports are a microcosm of society."

There's plenty of bad stuff, to be sure. But it's the good stuff which keeps us coming back.

Count us among those who are happy to do it.