I race bicycles. I started in 1979. I got pretty good, fast enough to earn my way to category II status, just below the pool from which USA Cycling draws the National and Olympic teams. Along the way, I competed against some truly world-class racers and became friends with a few of them. During my career, as all top athletes do, I had a momentary brush with performance enhancing drugs (I wrote about my encounters with them here). As I aged out of elite racing, I marveled, along with the rest of the sporting world, at Lance Armstrong’s insatiable will to win and his drive to return to the top ranks of the sport after testicular cancer. I do not know Armstrong, although we have people in common. But I am a cancer survivor, as is my brother, and I wore my Livestrong bracelet with pride. Like others, I wondered how, Armstrong managed to win against the best in the world without testing positive himself. Now we know. He didn’t.
Is Armstrong’s monstrous mendacity the issue here? No. I believe his biggest sin is that of lashon hara, wounding with words. Armstrong used his money, power, and influence to destroy, with words, the lives of many good men and women. Talmudic rabbis debated “the worst sin.” Murder? Idolatry? No, the rabbis decided, it was wounding with words. The sin of wounding with words is as bad as all other sins combined. (Jerusalem Talmud Peah 1:1). In Zohar 3:53a, it is said, “God accepts repentance for all sins, except the sin of imposing a bad name upon another.” (These citations from Rabbi Steven Bayar, Torah Aura Productions.) Lance Armstrong destroyed lives through lies and deceit, innuendo and libel and slander. He did it through “the worst sin.”
- Tyler Hamilton, a world-class cyclist who used PEDs under the direction of Lance, the team’s manager, and Armstrong’s now-banned drug doctor, was due to testify about the team’s doping products and techniques. When Armstrong and Hamilton had a chance meeting before Hamilton’s testimony, Armstrong reportedly told him, among other thing, “We’ll make your life a living hell.”
- Masseuse Emma O’Reilly became a drug runner for the team. When she cooperated (for a fee) with author David Walsh in his book L. A. Confidential: Lance Armstrong's Secrets,Armstrong’s camp sued her for libel, assailing her as a prostitute with alcohol problems. “Emma suffered from the lawsuit the most,” Mr. Walsh said in an interview this week. “This woman was an opponent of Lance Armstrong and was completely vilified.”
- The war between Armstrong and three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond has a long and ugly history. Lance had a strong hand in the demise of LeMond’s bicycle brand, produced and marketed by Trek Bicycles (the company which, until just last week, stood by Armstrong).
- Frank Andreu (who is, disclaimer, a friend of mine) was a faithful teammate of Lance’s who used EPO for one season. When Armstrong told his doctors, before his cancer surgery, about his PED use, Frank’s wife Betsy was present. When word got back to Armstrong that Betsy knew of this, Lance’s team tried to destroy her credibility. In addition, Frank, now retired from racing, was beginning a career with a network that carried the Tour de France; Lance pressured a team owner to fire him.
In all, 26 men and women have testified against Armstrong; 11 were teammates. In every instance that someone has come forward to speak against Armstrong, he has used every sin of wounding with words to strike back. Even if, by some chance, he decides to come clean about his actions, I believe he cannot undo the destruction he has wrought on good people and sport. NBA star Charles Barkley famously said, “I ain’t nobody’s role model.” But when you become part of the public consciousness – when you take money for being who you are in the service of a product or company or cause – you become, like it or not, a role model, a hero. We all know the power of myth and heroism. We are all touched by cancer. We wanted, we needed, a cancer hero. Eighty million Livestrong bracelets purchased on a myth built upon a lie, compounded by the power of the worst of all sins. Maimonides identified four levels of the sin of words: the talebearer, the evil tongue, the deceitful evil tongue, and the slanderer. In my view, all apply to Lance Armstrong. Did he help raise millions to raise cancer awareness? Yes, he did. Sadly, he did so with a multimillion dollar lie that came with an irreparable cost to real people with real lives, real families, and real feelings. The worst sin, indeed.
David Stanley is a member of Temple Beth El in Flint, MI. He is a teacher, athlete, coach, and cancer survivor blogging about education, cancer, sport, society at DStan58-Rants & Mutters. He is interested in nearly everything.