Born in 1971, Lance Armstrong began to compete as a triathlete at age 16, winning championships in 1989 and 1990. In 1992 he began his career as a professional cyclist and experienced significant success—including the 1993 World Championship—but no victories in the ultimate cycling event, the Tour de France.
In October 1996, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. After extensive medical and surgical treatment, he was declared to be free of cancer in February 1997, and from 1999 to 2005 won the Tour de France an unprecedented—and virtually unthinkable—seven times. In the process, he acquired many lucrative sponsors and a fortune estimated at about $100 million.
During his career, many people accused him of cheating—of using illegal performance-enhancing drugs and blood doping—but he categorically denied it. In fact, he scolded and even sued many of his detractors, winning an unknown number of suits, among them a libel award of $500,000 from the London-based Sunday Times.
After extensive investigation, however, a report of more than a thousand pages thoroughly documented Armstrong's illegal activities, and in August 2012 he was officially disqualified from all his victories after August 1998—including all seven Tour wins. He was also banned from professional cycling for life, but he nonetheless continued to vehemently deny his guilt until January 17, 2013, when he confessed to Oprah that he had been using illegal substances consistently during all his cycling victories from the mid-1990s.
Oprah asked Armstrong if it felt wrong while he cheated so often and for so long. "No," he replied, adding after some reflection, "Scary." He admitted that he didn't feel bad, nor did he even feel at the time that he was cheating. He said that he took his illegal drugs with much the same attitude that he pumped up the tires of his bike.
A great many people have wondered how such a respected athlete could have gone so wrong for so long. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that people keep asking questions like this, the same ones they've asked for centuries about the indiscretions and illegal activities of sports heroes, politicians, business leaders, and others.
People in the public eye get a great deal of attention, more than the average person can imagine. The approval and the power literally become a drug to them, and the addiction is profound. While people are drinking alcohol, we all know that their ability to think and make moral decisions is greatly impaired, but we fail to recognize that the consumption of approval and power is no less distorting to the mind and soul.
The pain of not having sufficient Real Love isn't just annoying. It's intolerable, and people will do almost anything—lie, cheat, steal, be unfaithful, and even kill—to decrease that pain, even if the beneficial effects are superficial and fleeting, and even if the overall effects are harmful to themselves and destructive to others. We are naïve to the point of dishonesty to claim that Armstrong's revelation is shocking. Rather, his behavior has become the norm in our society. His indiscretions are no worse than I see in "average" people every day, just more visible.
There is nothing to be gained by criticizing our heroes who have failed to live by the high standards we impose upon them. Much better that we devote our efforts to being more honest and loving ourselves, lighting a torch whose fire will light the way for others and make a real difference in the world.