Mark Fairweather Tall
Lessons of life from the story of Lance Armstrong...
Lance Armstrong has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this week. The former cycling hero with multiple Tour de France victories behind him has finally come clean – he was a drugs cheat. Controversy over cheating in sport is nothing new: think of Ben Johnson (stripped of the 1988 100m Olympic gold medal for drug taking; Diego Maradona (and that goal in 1986 that probably bothers people in England more than anywhere else in the world!); Pakistan cricketers Salmon Butt, Mohammed Asif & Mohammed Amir(jailed for their part in a betting scam). Armstrong admitted his use of performance-enhancing drugs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey leading to widespread condemnation. He has been dropped by his sponsors (at a mind-boggling cost of $75 million) and even seen one library in Australia move his books from the ‘must-read autobiography’ section to the ‘fiction’ section. It isn’t just the fact that he cheated but the disappointment and anger that someone who was viewed as a hero was so unworthy of adulation he received.
As I have reflected on this story, it seems to me that there is something very human in his story that perhaps we should identify with. Let me explain.
1) The deceitful heart
In the book of Jeremiah we read: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Ch 17:9) Armstrong’s interview reveals how true this is. Here is what he said: "I can look at what I did, cheating to win bike races, lying about it, bullying people. Of course, you're not supposed to do those things. That's what we teach our children.” Knowing the difference between right and wrong was not the problem – it is what he was able to justify to himself: “I went and looked up the definition of cheat, and the definition is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.” Others were using drugs, so if he did as well, then it simply made everyone even. Armstrong lived in a make-believe world where he bullied and sued those who suggested that he was not clean. He was living a lie and probably justifying it to himself all the way along. The heart is indeed deceitful.
All of us have to do battle with a deceitful heart. The phrase popularised by Robert Armstrong in the 1986 Spycatcher trial was being “economical with the truth”. I wonder how often we are guilty of the same. We can be so good at excusing our behaviour whilst seeing the wrong so clearly in others. Jesus encourages us to “first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Luke 6:42
2) A mixed bag…
The dramatic reappraisal of Lance Armstrong has taken him fall to earth from the status of hero to a reputation lying in tatters. To read the press and hear the views expressed by many, you would think Lance Armstrong is all bad, nothing more than a bully, cheat and liar. The reality probably lies somewhere in between. He wasn’t as great as people made out before but now he isn’t as bad as some would have us believe.
A part of the Lance Armstrong story is his battle against testicular cancer. Having beaten the disease he set up the ‘Lance Armstrong Foundation’, now known as ‘Livestrong’. Here is a part of the statement they made:
"We at the Livestrong Foundation are disappointed by the news that Lance Armstrong misled people during and after his cycling career, including us. "Even in the wake of our disappointment, we also express our gratitude to Lance as a survivor for the drive, devotion and spirit he brought to serving cancer patients and the entire cancer community. Lance is no longer on the Foundation's board, but he is our founder and we will always be grateful to him for creating and helping to build a Foundation that has served millions struggling with cancer."
Armstrong is a mixed bag – but isn’t the same true about us? If we look at our lives in detail we will see both good and bad. Some parts of our lives we are happy for other to see. Other parts of our lives we would rather remain hidden and away from the public eye. If the most shameful parts of our lives were widely publicised, how would we shape up?
3) What about forgiveness?
There is no doubt that Armstrong is in need of forgiveness. Firstly, there is his family. Armstrong told of the moving moment when he had to speak to Luke, his 13 year old son: “I said, ‘Don’t defend me anymore. Don’t’” His needs forgiveness from his family who have been drawn into the sadness of this matter. There are those who he has bullied and sued. He has mistreated them in a most awful way and he should say ‘sorry’ and seek their forgiveness. Armstrong has also indicated he wants forgiveness in terms of being allowed to compete again: ‘I can’t lie to you,’ he said. ‘I’d love to be able to compete [again] but that isn’t the reason that I’m doing this [interview].’He described his life time ban as a ‘death penalty’.
Novak Djokovic said, “It’s a disgrace for the sport to have an athlete like this”, before adding that he should “suffer for his lies.” Victoria Azarenko , the women’s No1 ranked tennis player said that “he deserves everything he gets.”Michele Verroken (former director of ethics at UK Sport) said the ban is “absolutely appropriate.”
So what about forgiveness and what does it mean? Because we are all a ‘mixed bag’, we are all in need of forgiveness. Because we are good at justifying to ourselves about why we have done something, forgiveness can end up feeling like something we deserve where others deserve punishment.
However, the Good News of the Gospel is that forgiveness is freely available for all, through Jesus, no matter what we have done. This requires acceptance of our mistakes and a decision to seek to live differently in the future. This is not easy, though. It means facing up to the reality of the hurt and suffering others have been caused through your actions. It also means accepting that there are consequences for what you have done that may mean, even with forgiveness life, doesn’t necessarily return to how it was before. The reality is that consequences for wrong doing can last, even when forgiveness is shared.
The story of Lance Armstrong is, sadly, an all too common human story. In recognising this, we can learn for our own lives – the deceitfulness of the heart, the mixed bag we are and the need for forgiveness. Such reflection should not leave us without hope, but rather appreciating all the more the acceptance and grace we find from God our Father, through Jesus.
Topic: Lessons of life from the story of Lance Armstrong...