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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Li(v)e Strong: The Paradox of Lance Armstrong

How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver! The highway of the upright is to depart from evil: he that keepeth his way preserveth his soul. Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before the fall.  Better it is to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud." -Proverbs 16: 16-19

Last week, over 28 million people watched Oprah Winfrey's interview with cycling great Lance Armstrong, who, after over a decade of passionate and pathological denial finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs throughout the course of his career.  And while there is nothing remarkable about an athlete admitting to using PED's in today's society (it has become almost commonplace these days), Lance Armstrong's story is a unique case.  Not only did he insist upon his innocence with greater zeal and determination than any other athlete, but he also regularly resorted to great and often hostile means to protect his legacy.

Let me say right from the beginning: I am not a cycling expert.  I know little to nothing about the sport and would probably have to strain my brain to come up with even half of a dozen professional riders.  Like most Americans, I know of Lance Armstrong almost exclusively due to the reputation he has gained as a seven-time Tour de France winner and as the founder of his cancer charity, Livestrong. And like most people who watched the interview, I too was struck by Armstrong's admission.  But it wasn't his admission to using PED's that stood out for me.  Instead, it was the detailed and calculated measures that Armstrong resorted to, over the course of a decade, that not only destroyed the lives and reputations of those who dared to challenge him, but also created an atmosphere of  absolute defiance to anyone who stood in his way.  Essentially, Armstrong considered himself bulletproof.  No attack, no matter how personal, no drug test, no matter how thorough, could penetrate the Teflon exterior of cycling's golden boy.

But all of this came to a violent and ugly end last week as Armstrong, under the weight of mounting evidence and departing sponsors, was forced to admit that he had been living a lie.  And in the process, America's white knight hero was brought back down to earth.


But the story of Lance Armstrong isn't as cut and dry as we may think.  After all, Lance isn't the normal star athlete by any stretch of the imagination.  Unlike Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Marion Jones, or the countless number of professional athletes who have admitted to using PED's, Armstrong's legacy transcends the world of sports.  As a cancer survivor and founder of Livestrong, Armstrong has become a walking, talking rally cry for cancer victims all over the world.  His inspirational story is undeniable, his impact to those who face this horrible disease immeasurable.  His Livestrong charity has raised over half a billion dollars for cancer research while his personal triumph over cancer has inspired countless millions in a way that only a cancer victim can fully understand.

Let me be clear here, it would be arrogant presumption of the highest order for me to assume that I know what a diagnosis of cancer feels like.  I have no clue and I hope I never do.  The unimaginable shock and horror of such a diagnosis is something that only a cancer patient truly understands.  As a result, none of us (or at least very few of us) have any right to pass judgement on Lance or any other cancer patient for how they choose to face this disease.  It is for this reason that Lance Armstrong has become a paradox of epic proportions.  One the one hand, you have a lying, cheating athlete who used banned substances to achieve excellence and then went to wild extremes to cover it up, often severely hurting those around him.  On the other hand, you have a philanthropist of the highest order.  A man who has given heart, mind and soul to defeating one of the most horrific diseases in human history.  In a very real sense, Lance Armstrong is a 21st century version of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  He is fire and ice personified.

But such is often the case with great and inspiring figures.  After all, it is easy to love the demigod who rarely if ever makes a mistake.  Sure, we would all love to believe that our heroes are the embodiment of perfection but such is rarely if ever the case.  Some of the most iconic individuals are also often the most complex and troubled as well.  For example, I have always been perplexed by how Thomas Jefferson (my favorite Founding Father) could write, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" while at the same time keeping over 300 human souls in bondage (not to mention having sexual relations and children with one of them).  Or how about the case of the great King David, who, as the hero of all Israel, chose to fall to temptation by sleeping with Bathsheba and then cover it up by sending her husband to die on the front lines of battle.  And while I'm not trying to equate Lance Armstrong with Thomas Jefferson or King David I do think the illustration is sound.  Sometimes great figures have great challenges and the higher they rise the harder they fall.

We live in a cynical society.  For whatever reason, Americans love to watch the rise and eventual fall of those in the public eye, and Lance Armstrong's story provides us with ample opportunity to rubber-neck this car crash to our heart's content.  With that being said, I believe that Lance deserves our eventual forgiveness.  Yes, the man lied and created an ugly situation for himself, leaving a trail of wreckage in his path, but such is life.  As the great poet Alexander Pope aptly stated, "To err is human to forgive, divine."  There is no doubt that Lance Armstrong has some ugly and difficult days ahead of him, but as he himself stated, "This is not my darkest hour."

And even though I never watched one of his races, nor did I care much for his sport, I am proud to declare today that I am now a Lance Armstrong fan!  Yes, I know he lied, cheated and hurt anyone who stood in his way, but I believe that the final chapter to the Lance Armstrong story is yet to be written.  I'm a fan of Lance because he is a walking, talking paradox, and as such is yet another example of the complexity of human existence.  We are all capable of the most beautiful dreams and the most terrible nightmares.  Every one of us walks the tight rope between virtue and vice.  But the point is that we never cave to our mistakes.  As Armstrong himself stated:
Pain is temporary.  It may last an hour, a day or a year, but eventually subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.   
Amen, Lance.  A professional theologian couldn't have said it better!  And no doubt Lance will face his pain and his demons, as we all will.  Sure, it is likely that Lance Armstrong will never again recover his reputation but at this point it really isn't about reputation.  As Oprah Winfrey said at the conclusion of her interview with Armstrong, "I hope that the moral to your story will be: 'the truth will set you free.'"  Hopefully such will be the case with us all.

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