Lance Armstrong plays a lot of golf these days. He also drinks quite a bit.
His workout regimen has been reduced to a daily run, yet he remains fiercely competitive. He’s indignant that other flawed athletes haven’t suffered similar scorn.
Yet Armstrong remains a hero to many cancer survivors. He takes time to send video messages to patients he has never met. They say Armstrong’s encouragement has helped them in their darkest moments.
Such are the revelations from a feature in next month’s issue of Esquire, “Lance in Purgatory: The Afterlife.”
The article paints a picture of a complex man both ruthless and compassionate.
He’s a modern day Icarus who chased glory and fortune too far. He’s also a living Doctor Faustus suffering fallout from the deal he struck with the devil.
Two questions arose as I read the article.
Should we forgive him?
Could we forgive him?
Armstrong has taken a great fall. When his kingdom crumbled in 2012, he lost an estimated $150 million in one day. He was asked to leave the Livestrong Foundation he helped found. Recently, he was kicked out of a local swim race because of the wide-ranging competitive ban levied on him.
Yet nobody forced him to look sternly at the camera and lie about his innocence. Nobody forced him to sue journalists whose stories were ultimately proved truthful. Nobody forced him to cheat.
Sure, most Tour de France competitors apparently doped during that era. But if justice is to be served, shouldn’t the offender who gained the most from his transgressions also lose the most?
So should we forgive him?
Forgiveness walks a tightrope between benevolence and giving a pass to actions that shouldn’t be excused.
Armstrong’s cheating? Unforgivable!
Armstrong’s lying? Unforgiveable!
Armstrong’s intimidation of those who dared to stand up to him? Unforgivable!
Those are the knee-jerk reactions. But realize also that Armstrong is not solely culpable.
Armstrong is a symptom of a hero-worship culture as much as he was a malady. Fans and sponsors celebrated the monster we created, then recoiled when it turned on us.
Should we forgive Armstrong? Maybe.
But could we?
More than any other athlete, Armstrong obliterated a sports fan’s ability to trust. While would-be baseball hall-of-famers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa stammered before Congress and did everything but admit using steroids, Armstrong looked us in the eye and lied.
His signature event currently rolls through the French countryside under a shadow of doubt and suspicion. It won’t escape that shadow for decades.
If anything, Armstrong’s story should be a warning not to project idealistic traits onto athletes. They, like most people, are complicated and flawed. Holding them to unrealistic standards only leads to a letdown for them and us.
Becoming a redemptive figure might be out of Armstrong’s reach. Doing penance has never been his strong suit. He’d have to throw himself completely into charitable causes. He and the Livestrong Foundation would have to make peace.
Forgiveness is not a simple task when it involves complicated people and situations. It’s usually something that benefits the afflicted more than the offender.
Eventually, we should forgive Armstrong. But you’d be forgiven if you can’t.