Like many, I planned on tuning into Oprah’s exclusive interview with Lance Armstrong last night. And I was dreading it.
I was dreading it because I am angry with him.
I was dreading it because I really looked up to the guy.
I was dreading it because I was afraid that his responses would be full of sanctimonious excuses and trite apologies.
I was dreading it because no matter what others claimed over the years, I actually believed him when he swore that he wasn’t doping. That others were jealous, vindictive, and publicity-mongering.
Who is a hero?
One who has physical strength? And with unsurpassed bravery? Maybe. Certainly that has been the number one qualification in a variety of cultures throughout the ages.
Our Jewish tradition has, to no one’s surprise, its own take on what constitutes a hero. Rather than focusing on the physical attributes and courage, our Sages took a radically different position:
“Who is a hero?” asks Ben Zoma (a Rabbinic sage, living in the first third of the 2nd century). “One who overcomes temptation” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
Physicality, to the Sages, isn’t a factor. In fact, a physically-weak person who withstands temptation would be considered a hero while the physically-strong one who yields to temptation would be considered a weakling.
By this definition, Lance Armstrong is the very antithesis of a hero. He yielded to temptation, time and again, and can no longer be accorded the respect and acclaim he once was.
From the very start of the interview, I was riveted to the screen. Armstrong admitted his wrongdoings in the first 90 seconds. There it was; after years of aggressive denials, Lance Armstrong had confessed to using performance-enhancing substances, in great detail, before a worldwide audience. With a candor that, from all appearances, bordered on relief.
I wanted to be angry with him for manipulating the system. For lying. For coercing. For besmirching. For not living up to the image he had created. Instead, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. For him. For his inability to overcome temptation and for his own self-destruction.
So I can no longer consider him a hero. And I can no longer point to him as an example when teaching my kids about one of the greatest sports heroes the world has seen. But he is teaching us another, and I would argue more important, life lesson:; how to do teshuvah (repentence). As Oprah walked him through the winding path of deceit, I couldn’t help but respect his forthrightness in accepting responsibility for his actions and acknowledging the pain he has caused so many people. While this in no way makes us for the betrayal, it is a significant first step in what, I suspect, will be a life-long process. When my children come to me, ashamed for something they have done, I can remind them of a man who had it all, lost it, and found the strength to confront his mistakes.