Lance Armstrong – Can Good Spring from Evil?Posted on November 4th, 2012 No comments
From all the available evidence in front of us, there is only one logical conclusion – Lance Armstrong is a dirty cheater. Armstrong, who won cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, seven consecutive times, is accused of using performance enhancing drugs in order to achieve his amazing athletic successes. Recently, the Anti-Doping Agency released an over 1,000 page document detailing the vast orchestrated cheating campaign run by Armstrong’s US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. According to a press release, the agency claims that “the evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.” In addition, and perhaps most damning, the report contains detailed testimony from his former teammates, who paint a picture of rampant drug use within US cycling. His former friends and colleagues claim they were bullied into doping, told that they either needed to be injected with dangerous and illegal drugs or they would be kicked off the team. And those who attempted to expose Armstrong as a fraud faced threats, intimidation, and denigration if they tried to go public with their knowledge of his use of performance enhancing drugs.
Lance Armstrong’s goose is pretty well cooked. He has been stripped of his titles and banned from the sport that he loves. Due to the scandal, he stepped down as the chairman of Livestrong, the charity Armstrong established dedicated to fighting cancer and to helping those afflicted cope with their disease. His most prominent sponsor, Nike, has terminated its relationship with this disgraced athlete. Armstrong has become a pariah. But before we condemn him to sports purgatory with other drug cheats like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, et al, I think it is only fitting to take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Lance Armstrong, for there is more to his story than cycling.
For millions of people, Lance Armstrong was an inspirational figure. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which, as in the case of many men, went undetected for far too long. Had it been caught earlier, it would have been easier to treat. Unfortunately for Armstrong, the cancer spread into his abdomen, into his brain. His prognosis was not good. But he aggressively fought the disease and, amazingly, resumed his cycling career. Armstrong became a symbol of hope when, just three years later, he won his first Tour De France title. Those struggling with cancer looked at what he accomplished and said to themselves, “If he can do this, why not me?” Over the years, his “LiveStrong” foundation has raised almost $500 million dollars for the fight against cancer and has raised awareness about this disease. Armstrong was not merely a figurehead, a celebrity spokesperson – he has worked tirelessly to advocate for greater government funding for cancer research and treatment. I encourage you to visit www.livestrong.org to learn about this organization’s many programs and all the good it does for people living with cancer.
But now the very people he has inspired face a difficult question – knowing what we know now about Lance Armstrong, can they still find meaning in their fallen hero? Can anything good still be taken from his story?
The Talmud teaches that one day, Rabbah bar Rabbi Shila once met the prophet Elijah and asked him, “What is the Holy One doing?” Elijah replied, “God is reciting traditions concerning the law in the name of all the sages, but God is not reciting them in the name of Rabbi Meir.” Why not? Because Rabbi Meir was a student of Elisha ben Abuyah, also known as Acher! Elisha ben Abuyah was a sage and Torah scholar, but, later in life, he turned to a life of heresy. So according to Elijah, God does not quote Rabbi Meir because he was once a student of this wicked man. But Rabbah argued on Meir’s behalf, saying, “What does that matter? Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate, ate the seeds within it, and threw away the rind!” Rabbah maintained that Meir was able to learn matters of Jewish law and tradition from Acher while discarding the sacrilegious attitudes and profane actions of his former teacher. He kept all that was good within his teacher and rejected all that was bad.
When it comes to how we view Lance Armstrong, I suggest we need to emulate Rabbi Meir’s attitude toward his teacher. There is no doubt that Armstrong leaves behind a tarnished legacy. He has done irreparable damage to his reputation. He cheated his sport, his country, and himself. But this does not wipe out the tremendous good he has done for those battling cancer. His titles have been erased from the record books, but his work towards creating a world without cancer cannot be erased. Lance Armstrong, the athlete, may have been a phony. But there is nothing fake about the hope and inspiration Lance Armstrong has provided cancer patients all over the world.
Lance Armstrong’s autobiography is titled, “It’s Not About the Bike”, which, ironically enough, is still true, just not in the way he intended. For now when we think of him, we cannot think of his accomplishments in the world of cycling, for they were an illusion, a doped- up scam. But, despite it all, we can still remember the man in the yellow bracelet, who reminded us, in the face of cancer, of our obligation to “Livestrong.”
Rabbi Joshua Lobel is the associate rabbi at Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.
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