Around 25 years ago, I was racing bicycles in Southern California. It was mostly local club races and I enjoyed training rides with teammates. We began hearing stories of a talented junior (under 18) in Texas. He had gifts, but tended to be so relentlessly competitive that he wanted to lead a race from start to finish, which often is not the best strategy. That young Texan turned out to be Lance Armstrong.
As a fan of the sport, I followed his career; I remember the day I heard that he had been diagnosed with cancer. I watched with great interest his unlikely comeback, not only to life but also to dominance in his sport. When the allegations began, I took to his defense. No one, who by will and determination defeated cancer would cheat, I argued. Last month, in case anyone needed further convincing, the emperor himself admitted that he had no clothes.
The story goes in a lot of directions from there. Did Armstrong confess merely to have his lifetime ban reduced? Was he actually contrite? Is he seeking forgiveness? How did he do it and avoid detection? Did his use of performance enhancing drugs lead to his cancer? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions.
Perhaps I am naïve, but I have been wondering about love for the sport. I enjoy competition both as a participant and an observer. As a participant, I was my own opponent and the goal was to see how far I could push myself. I remember well finishing a 100-plus mile event (kind of the cycling equivalent of a marathon) for the first time. Is it just the taint of extraordinary sums of money that pushes people to cheat? Armstrong commented that he did not create the culture of doping in his sport. That is true. He did, however, strive through multiple means including threats and intimidation and lies to those closest to him, to perfect it. And he almost did it.
What Lance Armstrong will never know is whether he could have won the Tour de France. He will never know if he could have been the greatest comeback story in the history of sport. In the 16th chapter of Luke, Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” Will Armstrong ever know if anyone ever really trusts him again?
My 23-year-old son is an adult living with autism. He has been a basketball fanatic ever since he watched Michael Jordan play with Bugs Bunny in “Space Jam” in 1996. I have learned a great deal about playing for the love of the game through Special Olympics. Athletes with intellectual disabilities work hard with the very simple goal of doing the best they can do, and in doing so learn about overcoming life’s obstacles.
Two weeks ago, members of the Desert Vista basketball team visited our practice. It was a great scrimmage. Our team wanted to do its best and worked very hard, but most of all, they were grateful that a group of such skilled athletes would take the time to help them prepare for their first game. Thanks for coming out, guys. It was a great reminder that it isn’t about winning at all costs. It really isn’t even about winning.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.