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Armstrong’s fall from grace

Lance Armstrong during the Tour Down Under, Adelaide 2009. Source: Paul Coster photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulcoster/3224582143/

Lance Armstrong is being harshly judged in the court of public opinion, the same court in which he willingly sought acclaim. He has chosen not to play the game by the rules of the sport that brought him so much fame and financial reward, says ethicist Trevor Jordon.

As much as we would love sport to be a venue for escaping the moral ambiguities and failings of the day-to-day political and social world, it shares in our human condition.

Public life is full of crude simplicities and we play heroes and villains very easily.

It is hard for the single-minded fan to accept that virtues such as courage, perseverance and even caring can exist along with injustice, dishonesty, meanness and bullying in the one person.

Yet, I am reminded of the words of the poet Dylan Thomas, "We are not wholly bad or good who live our lives under Milk Wood".

The failings in the Lance Armstrong case are both personal and institutional, and international cycling risks becoming like pro-wrestling, a form of sports entertainment rather than an arena of genuine and exemplary achievement. Prudence dictates that we adjust our expectations when it comes to sport and our sporting heroes.

Once upon a time, simply playing by the rules was sufficient.

Then along came the so-called "professional foul", where players take advantage of the rules by breaking them at strategic points in the game.

We are only bad if we get caught being bad. That's legalism not ethics!

It is the same attitude as saying that not being detected taking performance-enhancing drugs is the same as not actually taking them.

Sometimes the rules are pushed to the limit and the rules have to be changed. The famous underarm bowling incident that marred Australia-New Zealand cricket relations for at least a decade comes to mind, as do recent changes in Rugby League to prevent the so-called "chicken-wing tackle".

Perhaps the weakest excuse in sport for continuing to cheat is that "everybody does it".

This is particularly insidious because it misconstrues the concept of fairness to claim a perverted kind of victim status.

It is a Faustian bargain, in which both the individual and the sport loses its soul.

As Christians, our response to wrongdoing ought to be different than that of the world around us.

Discipleship sets demanding standards.

Yet, we know that we are not perfect, and we are advised not to cast the first stone.

In the Bible, the kind of striving, discipline and single-minded purpose embodied by athletes is used as a metaphor for living the life of faith.

If sportspeople do all this for prizes that fade, how much more, wrote Paul, should we strive for rewards that do not fade? (1 Cor 9: 24-27). It is important to run the great race and finish the course, but it is just as important to keep the faith (2 Tim 4:7).

This was a central message in the movie Chariots of Fire.

Eric Liddell refused to run in his favoured race, the 100 metres, on a Sunday, but he was duly rewarded for his faithfulness in honouring the Lord's Day by winning the 400 metres instead.

At least, that is how the movie presented it, and many Christians interpreted it as a faith-brings-success story.

Yet, as John Alexander, editor of The Other Side magazine, wrote at the time, it was more encouraging for his son, who has a disability, to know that Liddell also came last in his 200 metres race.

Faithfulness is its own reward.

Honouring God, for Liddell, was a matter of deeds both on and off the sporting field. He died in a Japanese internment camp in China in 1945, five weeks before liberation.

According to Chinese authorities, Liddell had been given a chance to leave the camp by Japanese authorities but had given his place to a pregnant woman.

A culture of success, competition and winning is so ingrained across the various areas of our social life that as Christians we are in danger of being caught up in it.

Having good role models is important to learning how to be ethical. Our sporting "heroes" seem to embody virtues of discipline, hard work, determination, courage, and so on.

As Christians we sometimes fall into this temptation as well, looking for high profile sportsmen and sportswomen to be our celebrity exemplars of faith. It is an incredible burden for frail human beings to bear.

As Christians we can continue to look to sporting metaphors to encourage each other, but we must never lose sight of the broader context of unconditional love and acceptance in which these values are embedded in the Christian community.

We put our striving into the service of God through helping others.

Wherever that happens there is always a possibility for redemption. Amazing grace!

Dr Trevor Jordan is former Senior Lecturer in Applied Ethics at QUT, and founder of Encouraging Ethics.

Photo : Lance Armstrong during the Tour Down Under, Adelaide 2009. Source: Paul Coster photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulcoster/3224582143/