By now all those yellow “Live Strong” bracelets so popular a few years ago have probably gone to the dump, along with Lance Armstrong’s reputation.
Not so long ago it seemed that Armstrong had it all. He had not only overcome cancer, but had become one of the greatest athletes of his generation, winning the most prestigious of all professional cycling races, the Tour de France, an astonishing seven times. He was famous, rich—reportedly worth around $100,000,000 (yeah, count the zeros; that’s a hundred million bucks, friends), handsome, and, for a while, engaged to Sheryl Crow, for cryin’ out loud. He raised millions for the charity that bore his name, Lance Armstrong. Lance. Armstrong. This guy even had a perfect name for a macho stud American Athlete. Had his parents been prophetic?
He was held up to young athletes as a model competitor. This was a man who, on world television, pedaled up next to his chief competitor on a long hot climb, looked over at the guy, caught his eye, gave him a long stare, and then sped off, crushing any hope that anybody not named Armstrong would wear the yellow jersey that year. Supreme confidence wedded to supreme achievement.
His feats of strength and endurance seemed beyond the bounds of human athletic possibility.
And apparently they were. Suspicion grew to rumor, rumor to accusation, accusation to denial. The great champion insisted that he had never used PEDs,–performance-enhancing-drugs. He threatened to sue people and publications who continued to suggest that he had juiced, and one such publication actually forked over $600,000 to the offended rider, who pointed out that he had never failed a drug test.
That part was true. In fact, he had learned how to mask the drugs and fool the test.
But finally there was just too much evidence for Armstrong to plausibly deny. Eyewitnesses, including some of his own teammates, told a consistent story of what they had seen. The assembled evidence made a stack of paper that looked like the manuscript of a Russian novel. Armstrong could not continue insisting that he was an innocent victim of others’ envy and unfounded suspicion. He has been stripped of his championships and banned from competition. He finally agreed to a long interview with Oprah Winfrey, and admitted that he doped and then lied about it, loudly and repeatedly. The hero has been revealed to be a cheat, a liar and a blustering bully.
So what are we to make of this sorry story? Is this something like an ancient Greek drama, the hero, like Oedipus, brought into the dust, exiled and disgraced as a consequence of pride and unchecked ambition?
Well, yeah, I’d say so. There’s a reason why these archetypes keep appearing and reappearing in literature and the newspaper: human beings keep behaving this way—athletes and actors, scholars and singers, Presidents and preachers.
Few ministries have been wrecked because a famous preacher or television evangelist has renounced his theology. But we don’t have to initiate a Google search to begin to count those brought down by the perils of power, fame and wealth, and the distorted egos that too often ensue.
Some years ago I received a flyer in the mail asking me to be on the lookout for singing talent, since the son of a well-known TV evangelist and talk-show host was, in imitation of Star Search and American Idol, launching a program to discover Christian stars.
I thought then—and I think now—that that was one of the worst ideas I had ever heard. Exactly how, I wondered, does that adjective go with that noun?
Well, it doesn’t—and it can’t. The trappings of stardom not only deflect us from the example of Christ, who taught us to kneel and wash one another’s feet, but place us in great danger. Experience tells us that the rich and idolized often behave badly.
We would like to believe that, given great wealth, fame and adulation we would do better.
But we probably wouldn’t. I can’t think of a single reason to believe that I would.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing for failure. I’m not your teacher so I can help you prepare to fail. And I don’t think there’s any inherent virtue in poverty. Poor people often behave badly too.
But I am asking us all to think carefully about whether we want to spend our lives pursuing the values advanced by Hollywood and Wall Street even if—especially if—those values are given a religious paint job, or by those ordered in Scripture and exemplified by Christ Himself. One set leads to trouble, the other to Heaven.