On a rainy May morning in 1996, I woke up early and drove to nearby Bristol, Virginia, to watch the start of a stage in a conspicuously branded professional bicycle race called the Tour DuPont. For a young East Tennessee amateur cyclist, this was about as close to the red carpet as I had ever been. There were a handful of famous European pros on hand, but I really wanted to get a glimpse of America’s next great hope—a scrappy young Texan named Lance Armstrong.
I had followed his career with interest since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and along with other Americans, was looking for a new cycling hero to follow the retirement of Greg LeMond. At the starting line, Armstrong coasted by and gave me a brief nod before riding out to an overall victory in the race. Five months later, he would be diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Outside the cycling world, Armstrong was still relatively unknown, so the news only merited a brief blurb in the sports section. I remember praying for him, but I had no expectation of ever hearing much about him again. But Armstrong did come back—not as a mere survivor, but a conqueror.
Throughout his (now vacated) victories in seven Tours de France, it seemed as if he were made to ride a bicycle. But if cycling was in his blood, his veins also flowed with banned substances. As his confession to Oprah Winfrey this week has shown—after years of testimony, lawsuits, and lost faith—there was more to the story than the narrative Armstrong presented. The greatest comeback story in all of sport sucked in media, sponsors, and cancer patients looking for a hero. It was the perfect story—too perfect.
Fraud torments a soul, even when the soul isn’t aware of the torment. Biblical examples abound. Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) seemed to have no clue that their guilt was catching up to them before it did with abrupt finality. Zacchaeus (Luke 19) had to be pulled from a tree by Jesus to be confronted and come clean about his fraud. When Oprah asked Lance if it felt wrong, he said “No. That’s scary.” Scary indeed.
Ruminating about God in his 2000 memoir, It’s Not about the Bike, Armstrong wrote, “At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whether I believed in a certain book, or whether I’d been baptized” (117).
Now Armstrong is being judged on that very thing—whether or not he has lived a true life. He has been found failing. For years, Lance Armstrong powered both his bikes and his blood with a lie and punished others to protect the fraud. He’ll bear the burden of his actions for a long time. This time, I pray for Lance that he does indeed at last find power in the blood and be free from his burden.