During this time of quarantine, one of the biggest examples of how much things have changed has been the disappearance of professional sports.
However, ESPN has been broadcasting a series of spectacular documentaries on Sunday evenings. I’m not an absolute sports nut, but something about the combination of professional athletes, especially ones at the absolute top of their game, combined with documentary style films, was just irresistible. I’ve sat down nearly every Sunday evening to watch them, including the four-hour Lance Armstrong documentary.
One of the reasons these documentaries are so compelling and draw so much interest is precisely because they reveal to us something that often goes unnoticed in our daily lives. They tap in to what St. John Paul II called the “big questions” and they reveal, even in their obstinate attempts to avoid them, how we must all confront these ontological and metaphysical realities.
Furthermore, these athletes often reveal not just fundamental truths about basic human nature, but even point us to some of the ecclesial and theological truths specific to a Catholic worldview.
First, a bit of necessary background on Lance Armstrong.
He began his athletic career in middle school with swimming, and then pursued triathlons. He was remarkably successful and earned victories at many prestigious triathlon events for youth. In fact, he was so dominant that he began entering competitions outside of his age range simply by lying about his birth date on applications. Very often, he won these races against older and stronger competitors.
Eventually, Lance decided to focus more exclusively on bike races and leave the triathlon competitions behind. After racing professionally for four years and beginning to climb the ranks of professional cyclists, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He then was forced to take time off to seek medical treatment. As he indicated in the recent documentary, he had already begun using performance-enhancing drugs and treatments, including human growth hormone, at this stage in his career.
After his temporary retirement and successful cancer treatment, Lance resumed his cycling career and set his eyes on competing in Europe and especially in the Tour de France. As is well-known by now, he would eventually rise to the top of the world in cycling, winning the Tour a record seven times in a row. During this time-frame, Armstrong also started up his Livestrong Foundation to raise awareness and funds for cancer research and treatment. The dual fact of his overcoming cancer and transforming the world of cycling made him an A-list celebrity and his story became one of the most popular feel-good comeback narratives in recent memory.
Unfortunately, it was all built on a lie.
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