My father was a better athlete than I ever aspired to be. He went to college on a track scholarship, ran marathons nearly an hour faster than my best time and was one of those people who get real medals at the end of the race (usually before I cross the line and get my finisher award).
After he blew out his knee playing football he took up cycling with the same intensity that he had for running. Although he didn’t cycle competitively, he trained ferociously and was a huge fan of the sport. He was particularly enamored with the Tour de France.
He died in 1989 while riding his bike, the year before American Greg Lemond would win his third Tour title. I remember watching the 1990 Tour and feeling a combination of incredible grief and comfort as my father’s cycling idol rode down the Champs Elysees as champion. At that moment Lemond stood on top of the world. But it didn’t last long.
In the coming years Lemond became better known for his whiny accusations than his cycling prowess. He famously battled Lance Armstrong, who had taken his limelight as the preeminent American cyclist, over accusations that Armstrong took performing enhancing drugs. He went from icon to pariah in a matter of years, chiefly at the hands of Armstrong, who used his power and influence to destroy Lemond’s waning reputation.
Lemond became a punchline and had to watch as Armstrong rode to victory seven times, made millions in endorsements, dated celebrities and became the hero of cancer survivors everywhere. Armstrong stood cockily on that mountaintop once occupied by Lemond.
But that didn’t last either. Several years ago Armstrong finally admitted that he had used PEDs throughout his dominant years. Lemond was vindicated, but it almost didn’t matter. Ivan Basso, Jan Ulrich, Floyd Landis- giant after giant fell to doping tests. What was revealed was that all of these cyclists were battling to get to the top of a tainted sport. They all wanted to stand atop a huge pile of dung.
We see this play out in other sports: baseball, football, track. In fact, we see this play out in all aspects of life: music, acting, politics, academia. It has become almost ritualistic in our culture to watch giants rise and fall. We glory in their excellence and revel in their destruction.
And yet no matter how many times we see the plot repeated, most never learn the lesson. We all scramble after our little whiffs of glory believing that if we reach the top of the mountain, it won’t smell like shit.
Jesus tells us:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasure upon the earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Matt. 6:19-21
But that’s easy for Jesus to say. It’s not like he was ever tempted by personal glory…well except for that episode where he was tempted in the desert and Lucifer offers him the entire world. But was he ever tempted by real glory?
I remember standing on that stage in 1979 accepting my ribbon for winning the annual elementary school spelling bee. As I looked out over the auditorium filled with at least 20 people, who respectfully did not rush the stage in adulation, I knew that the world was mine to conquer and rule.
Now I have to use spellcheck just to get through the day. And that smells like failure.