Lance Armstrong and the Way of Fallen Idols

I, like many people, was shocked when I heard today that cyclist Lance Armstrong gave up his fight against doping allegations, effectively forfeiting his seven Tour De France titles, his prize money, medals and perhaps his honor as the greatest cyclist ever to ride. Beyond his personal collateral damage, his Livestrong nonprofit stands to take a massive hit as its namesake, figurehead and primary spokesman goes the way of so many remarkable athletes before him.

Granted, Armstrong does not admit to using performance-enhancing drugs in giving up the fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), but as one commentator on National Public Radio noted this morning, he and the franchises associated with him have far too much to lose for him simply to give up because he’s weary of the struggle. Giving up the legal battle is, in the court of public opinion, at least, tantamount to a confession.

The news is still fresh on people’s minds, but based on the news and internet chatter I’ve seen, this is being met with a more somber response than, say, Barry Bonds or Mack Mcgwire. In the case of the latter two athletes (along with many others), it seems that the public has reveld in some degree of Schadenfreude as they witness someone being pulled from their high pedestal, back down to dwell among us common folk. Yes, we have a strange bloodlust for tearing down those we’ve chosen previously to build up as icons or role models, and Armstrong’s grave-dancers surely will come out of the shadows in time, but is there something different about him? Do we have more of a reason to mourn his precipitous decline, as opposed to others who have preceded him?

For one, Armstrong represents a kind of national pride that other professional athletes sometimes lack. Yes, we admire baseball and football celebrities, but we tend to carry a sort-of love/hate relationship about them, not unlike we might hold for a sibling. Even more so if they happen to play for a team we’ve frequently rooted against. But Lance Armstrong has represented the United States on the world stage for many years, and has carried the flag of national excellence and pride in a way that few others have ever achieved (please, please, Michael Phelps, don’t tell me you’ve been juicing all your Subway sandwiches this whole time). In watching him fall, we, too, lose a bit of our own pride in our superiority in the sphere of competitive sports, which is a bitter pill to swallow.

Armstrong also has the benefit of both empathy and admiration, beyond his sports audience. He garnered his fair share of both when he was diagnosed with, and then overcame, cancer, and he bolstered the latter by launching the now-ubiquitous Livestrong nonprofit, dedicated to cancer research and eventual cures. His reputation has suffered a bit in the tabloids as he’s seen relationships wither and crumble, but it’s hard to judge, given the intense attention and scrutiny he and his loved ones always are under. Not to excuse acts of infidelity, but it’s easy to cluck our tongues from the comfort of our own relative anonymity while knowing very little about what it’s like to live under such day-to-day pressure.

It may sound right about now like I’m defending Lance Armstrong, and I suppose that’s a reasonable stone to cast my way.  It’s not like he needs me to defend him, but there is a part of me that, like many others, is reticent to let go of the elevated place I held him in my imagination. I wanted to believe what he had achieved was possible without doping. I wanted to believe that, if he could confront and conquer cancer, he could do nearly anything. I wanted to believe we (and therefore America by proxy) was different than others in his sport who have fallen victim to similar drug-related scandals.

And in so much as he still confesses innocence, despite the confounding evidence to the contrary, I want to believe him.

We are starkly warned in scripture not to hold any idols above God. Burt there’s a reason God saw fit to reach out to humanity through the life of Jesus. We long for something we can touch, see and identify with, yet that is somehow transcendent, bigger than life. This isn’t to say that Lance Armstrong is some kind of messianic second coming, but we’re always looking for that person who, in some shape or expression, can be The One.

And, as false idols are wont to do, it seems he’s being dragged back down to earth with the rest of us.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Russ

    I see it slightly differently. Faced with accusations that will never stop as long as he lives (as it appears there’s no statute of limitations on the USADA’s attempts to prove him guilty), Lance chose the high road. He turned the other cheek, so to speak, and took the one step that would end the circus for good.

    Did he dope? I don’t care. Did he show courage by refusing to take part in the USADA’s circus? I think so.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ky.crager Ky Crager

    Christian, I follow your writing pretty closely, and much of it I identify with and agree with, but this feels like you’re kicking a man while he’s down. The guy wrote a very convincing and eloquent explanation as to the toll this has taken on him and his family in an emotional, financial sense. If the USADA has been chasing him for this long, this relentlessly, and they have yet to prove him guilty that screams of a witch hunt. If he is tired, that’s his prerogative. In a he said/she said situation, I don’t think you should assume he is guilty so you can write a blog about it.

  • Elizabeth

    actually, there’s hardly any evidence that he doped. many of the so-called witnesses have been found guilty of doping. this IS a witch hunt, started by jealous haters. his w/drawal from the fight is not “tantamount to a confession.” he’s tired. he stated that this has taken a major toll on his family and i don’t blame him for backing down. in the US, we’re innocent until proven guilty. You, along w/ the USADA have convicted him w/o a fair trial and that conviction is based on hearsay and scant evidence. you wrote, ”
    And in so much as he still confesses innocence, despite the confounding evidence to the contrary, I want to believe him.” there isn’t any “confounding evidence.” the best they’ve got on him is using “a bit too much anti-inflammatory medication,” which was an anti-inflammatory similar to ICY HOT. they found the “bit too much” on his BIKE SEAT! that is not doping. Next time, when you write an article on someone, actually do some research instead of parroting the mainstream media (which is notorious for distorting the facts to fit their agenda). Shame on you.

  • Jo Hilder

    If you read his own statement, it’s clear what his position is. It’s very difficult I believe to assume guilt when you hear him tell it in his own words. He sounds like a man who has decided he can pick his battles. Good for him, I say. I think he’s earned the right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Se-Gregg/100000187355812 S.e. Gregg

    In the Olympic Games there will always be a question of whether or not athletes were deserving of their medals.But we don’t have to worry about anything like that happening in the Christian Olympics because Jesus Christ is the Judge.
    http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Olympics-Going-Gold-Crowns-ebook/dp/B007VVTSTU

  • Tony

    People only assume guilt from the accused’s silence when they themselves have something to hide. Casting the first stone, indeed…..

  • ladyxx

    Enough is enough. Stopping the madness is no admission of guilt or anything else. Just enough of the BS.

  • SundayAfternoon

    The Lance Armstrong case doesn’t exist in a vacuum in cycling. For years cycling has had a doping and drug abuse problem for enhancing performance and Armstrong is the highest profile athlete to be sanctioned. It has taken the establishment of an anti-doping agency independent of the governing body to reveal that in cycling at least, there is collusion and corruption at the highest levels of the sport including allegedly the UCI (world cycling governing body).

    To get credentials in cycling as an athlete or certain team personnel you agree up front by signing a release how alleged breaches of the discipline code will be arbitrated. Armstrong was not the only person named in the USADA indictment – the team manager and at least 2 doctors were also included. 2 of them, the manager and one of the doctors are taking this to arbitration, which is what Armstrong chose not to do.

    Some evidence cannot be release at the moment due to the ongoing arbitration process. There will be however be evidence presented by USADA to the organizers of the the races that Armstrong competed in demonstrating that his results are required to be vacated given that there is now a default finding of guilt against Armstrong. There may be an appeal by an interested party to the Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) where the requirement to vacate results may be argued. I think Armstrong has given up his opportunity to appeal to CAS to argue the evidence.

    Naturally there is a lot more discussion going on in the cycling community – if you are at all interested, a good place to start might be here: http://forum.cyclingnews.com/forumdisplay.php?f=20


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X