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The Lance Armstrong Tragedy

August 26, 2012 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

A timely lesson for all of us.

Tragedy, Aristotle taught us, requires that someone prominent fall from lofty heights. It is the sudden and abrupt plunge of a hero from his pedestal that defines a true misfortune.

In that sense, according to some, the Lance Armstrong story surely qualifies. According to others he is a victim of jealous competitors, the subject of a witch hunt. 

He won the Tour de France an unprecedented seven straight times, becoming one of most accomplished athletes in recent history. And he acquired almost iconic stature because of his heroic and ultimately successful triumph over the testicular cancer that threatened his life at the young age of 25. Already a world champion cyclist at the time, with but a thin chance for survival, he conquered his illness and went on to even greater victories.

The US Anti-Doping Agency stripped the cycling superstar of his historic seven Tour de France titles.

Lance Armstrong was more than a winner. He was an inspiration. His adoring fans round the world revered him as role model. He was the paradigm of the human spirit refusing to be defeated by affliction and overcoming all obstacles by indomitable courage.

According to the United States Anti-Doping Agency, banned substances played a crucial role in Armstrong's amazing success. His need to win translated into a win-at-all-costs outlook. 

The USADA made the controversial move to strip the cycling superstar of his historic seven Tour de France titles, the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Olympics and all other titles, awards and money he won from August 1998 forward. He is now barred for life from competing, coaching or having any official role with any Olympic sport. Armstrong decided to no longer fight the allegations, triggering the contested punishment. He denies all guilt, and has never failed any of othe doping tests that he has taken.

I do not know if Armstrong is guilty, but his exceedingly harsh punishment still brings with it a message that applies to us all. 

In a culture becoming more and more inured to corruption, to illegal practices, to dishonesty and to fraud in almost every area of life, it is high time to make clear a simple truth that is at the heart of Judaism: Actions have consequences.

We can certainly feel compassion for those who made wrong choices in life that led to their downfall. But to feel sorry for them is not the same as agreeing that there be no penalty for their misdeeds. If there is no retribution for our actions, why bother being honest when it's so much easier — and certainly far more profitable — to cut corners and then simply expect to be forgiven?

The USADA's judgment against Lance Armstrong took place during the days Jews prepare for Rosh Hashanah and stand before God who assumes His role as Judge of the universe. We, too, will be placed on the divine scale of the Arbitrator of our fate for the coming year. And God's judgment is perfect and uncontested, unlike the ASADA. We had better internalize the message that if our life's victories are based on fraud they will eventually be overturned.

Joe Paterno: Another Fallen Giant

It is a truth that was stunningly illustrated just a few months ago in a remarkably similar story of a fallen giant. There probably was no more successful football coach than Joe Paterno who led the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1966 to 2011. Paterno coached five undefeated teams that won major bowl games and, in 2007, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In all, he led the Nittany Lions to 37 bowl appearances with 24 wins. Paterno was the only coach with the distinction of having won each of the four major bowls — Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar — as well as the Cotton Bowl Classic, at least once. Penn State won at least 3 bowl games in each of the 3 decades between 1970 and 1997.

Outside the Penn State football stadium stood a 7-foot tall statue of the man who assumed mythical proportions. And this past July the statue was removed from its pedestal outside Beaver Stadium, to be stored in an unnamed "secret location." The decision came 10 days after a scathing report by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh found that Paterno had concealed allegations of child sexual abuse made against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Paterno chose to turn a blind eye to moral impropriety. He preferred to live by the famous credo that "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." His victories were tainted by scandal.

Unethical wins are nothing less than losses.

The outcome of his ethical failure was monumental. It was not only the removal of the statue that vividly marked the extent of Paterno's fall. The NCAA hit Penn State with a $60 million sanction, a four-year football postseason ban and a voiding of all wins dating to 1998 — and Paterno's legacy will now reflect these vacated records.

For years it was a given that Penn State had won all those games. Now it turns out they didn't. How is it possible for winners to be losers? The answer is one that we need to acknowledge not only as crucial for cyclists or football coaches but for every one of us as well: Winning isn't just determined by the score or by who came in first. At least as important is being aware of how we got there. And unethical wins are nothing less than losses.

Tainted wins are no substitute for eternal legacies.

*This article has been subsequently edited to reflect the lack of clarity and proof regarding Armstrong's actions. 

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