| By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
First we hold them up as heroes. Daring. History-making.
Then we find out they are flawed. They took short cuts. Questions arose. It happened to Lance Armstrong in 2012. Elizabeth Holmes made bogus claims about a Silicon Valley breakthrough. Even famed polar explorer Robert Peary, celebrated in his lifetime, faked his biggest “discovery.”
Enter Colin O’Brady. The American explorer (above) has declared himself the first to ski solo across the continent of Antarctica unassisted. But was he?
O’Brady’s 2018 arduous trek captured the world’s imagination, and he’s on talk shows and magazine covers these days promoting a just-released autobiography. But O’Brady skied only about half the distance that Norwegian Borge Ousland, considered by many to be the modern era’s most accomplished polar explorer, did in 1997.
In Aaron Teasdale 's story for Nat Geo, Ousland says: “I don’t think he should get away with it. The truth should be presented.”
Trail-blazers throughout history are expected to uphold their personal integrity to get nuances right. It’s about sticking to the facts—and not by exaggerating the significance of your achievements. O’Brady, other explorers say, has been tripped up by the definition of what “crossing Antarctica” means.
Although O’Brady was the first to have completed the route he took across Antarctica, his journey irked explorers because he crossed not the Antarctica you see—the one that has existed for 100,000 years with ice caps—but the one that remote sensors have determined has land at the bottom of the ice. “It’s not so much that no one had been able to cross Antarctica this way before,” writes Teasdale, “it’s that no one had defined a crossing in such achievable terms.”
No one has accused O’Brady of using the performance-enhancing drugs that tarnished Armstrong’s accomplishments in cycling or of deceiving investors the way Holmes, once a hero to female entrepreneurs, did with claims about her biotech company, Theranos. And going back, it took nearly eight decades for researchers to determine that the notes of explorer Peary, once hailed (even by us) as the North Pole’s discoverer, showed that he had faked the find.
While Colin’s actions are substantially different from the actions of these prior trail-blazers, many polar experts are calling into question whether his Antarctica crossing is the achievement he claims it to be.
So, what makes something “a first”? And what do we want to believe, in an age where the signal of truth is often hard to find amid the noise of public relations, social media exaggeration, and of the expectation of legit superhuman accomplishments, such as Alex Honnold’s 2018 free solo climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan?
The skinny? History just may uncover the truth. Be careful whom you anoint a hero.
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