In 2006, Lance Armstrong sat down with Bob Ley on ESPN’s Outside the Lines and vehemently denied allegations that he engaged in blood doping during his cycling career. His articulate responses and restrained emotion betrayed an underlying confidence in his words. He spoke with poise, subtle aggression and just the right amount of smugness to seem genuine. He was the epitome of righteous indignation, and, as a result, the vast majority of the American public believed him.
It turns out Lance Armstrong is not only a really good at two-wheeled locomotion; he is a disturbingly good liar as well.
This week, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong gave the greatest “See, what had happened was …” in recent history by admitting what he had spent nearly a decade denying: He used performance-enhancing drugs during his illustrious cycling career. Now, as the American public, we are forced to answer a bizarre question: Is it more disturbing that he could lie to us for so long—and so elaborately—or that we’re really not surprised?
Armstrong is arguably the most successful and inspirational athlete of our generation, winning a record seven Tour de France titles and leveraging this success into the benevolent Livestrong empire. Yet despite the high-profile nature of Armstrong’s fall from favor, there is little unique about this story. Armstrong is simply one in a long line of once-great athletes to have plummeted from their pedestals because of scandal. In 2007, Marion Jones was stripped of five Olympic medals for taking PEDs. In Major League Baseball, PEDs were so widespread in the late 20th century that it is now known as the “steroid era.” Several weeks ago, no one was voted into the MLB Hall of Fame, largely because many of the eligible players are suspected of steroid abuse.
Indeed, the most haunting aspect of the Lance Armstrong saga is how commonplace it has become. Our heroes are dropping like flies, leaving an increasingly desensitized and cynical American public in their wake. At this point, as a society, it would probably be more newsworthy to hear a story about someone who achieved something great without cheating … which is a depressing social commentary!
This growing trend poses many troubling sociological questions: Why have our champions become so likely to cheat? Why has the compulsion to win become so great that so many are willing to compromise their integrity to do it? Given that sports are an expression of culture, what does this say about our nation at a broader level?
However, the more interesting story is not the sociological one but the human one. Though we like to create mythical heroes and villains out of professional athletes, the reality is they are neither. They are not one-dimensional archetypes but people, which means that Lance Armstrong, despite his celebrity, is really one of us—a human being, made in the image of God, marred by sin and living in a broken world.
This means that despite our desire to vilify him, the most human thing to do is identify with him, and the most interesting question is: How do we see ourselves in him?
One of the big questions of last night’s interview was, of course, how could he have engaged in and perpetuated such an elaborate deception? Armstrong told Winfrey that between surviving cancer, winning the Tour de France and becoming the face of the fight against cancer, a “perfect” and “mythical” story developed around him and he “lost [himself] in that.”
In other words, the true drive that pushed Armstrong into a deepening spiral of lies was not the fear of losing money or relinquishing his titles but the terror of forfeiting an identity. He had come to associate himself and his self-worth with an idealized narrative, and as time went on, he became more and more obsessed with “controlling the narrative.” Armstrong’s self-deception took place on a grand scale, to be sure, but his story has too many disturbing parallels to our own, as we construct our idealized identities in our own way and become unable to let them go.
When seen through this lens, Armstrong looks far less alien. In fact, he looks like all of us. We do it in much more subtle ways, but every day we construct and perpetuate idealized public identities and confuse these identities with who we are. We do it with the clothes we wear, the jobs we have and the cars we drive. We do it with the pictures we post on Facebook and the words we post on Twitter. In a sense, we are all engaged in the creation of “perfect” and “mythical” narratives, becoming progressively lost in them and growing less and less willing to relinquish them.
There’s only one antidote for climbing out of this manufactured narrative we create for ourselves, which is the same thing at the very core of the Christian faith: the scandal of grace. The central claim of Christianity is that God is a God of grace, yet most of us still walk around tirelessly working to justify our existence through money, fame, adoration, success, etc. This is why it is so hard for us to relinquish our constructed identities, and the Armstrong saga hints at why.
When we talk about grace in the Church, we most often define it in terms of the bad things we’ve done that don’t matter anymore in God’s eyes. But there is a flip side to this coin that we often unwittingly ignore. If God is a God of grace, then all the good things we’ve done don’t matter, either! Of course, none of us would concede that how we live doesn’t matter, but in terms of our acceptance and justification, both the bad and the good we do are irrelevant. And that is scandalous!
Accepting that our sin is irrelevant is easy. Accepting that the good we’ve done is irrelevant is much more difficult. And in that, Lance Armstrong and I look very much the same.
CJ Stephens is Co-Pastor of Ekklesia Church at Raleigh, co-founder of the Red Light Film & Art Project and a former Quarterback at the University of North Carolina. You can read more from him at heisman03.com.