In cycling legend Lance Armstrong's spectacular fall from grace, the world is witnessing a morality play with a powerful lesson about the scourge of cheating not just in sports, but wherever it threatens personal or professional interaction.
The decision to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles is a necessary step in a cleansing process that wouldn't be possible were it not for the fact Armstrong's peers came forward and chose, at the risk of personal shame, to tell the truth.
Their decision validates a reality about fair play in all forms of commerce and competition — it exists only when there is consensus among the participants that deception and dishonesty will not be tolerated. Organizations can pass rules, and governments can make regulations, but unless those who operate under such rules agree to abide by them, they are eventually subverted and rendered meaningless.
There is always a way to rationalize an ethical shortcut in order to gain an advantage. It may seem OK to lie about your income on a mortgage application, because everyone's doing it and no one's getting caught. You might end up in a nicer home, but the larger community suffers through the burst of a housing bubble.
It's tempting to use blood-doping to compete in a bicycle race, because everyone is doing it. But then, the sport is forever tainted and its credibility vanishes.
Cycling may now be able to overcome this period of disgrace only because some of its most gifted competitors came forward — albeit under threat of exposure and possible prosecution — in allegiance to the integrity of their sport over the legacy of a teammate.
A similar storyline is playing out in Major League Baseball. In midsummer, baseball's leading batter was suspended for 50 games when it was discovered he had used banned substances. At the time, the loss of the San Francisco Giants' Melky Cabrera was seen as a lethal blow to the team's prospects.
Cabrera's teammates expressed disappointment and disgust that a player would jeopardize a team's chances by acting selfishly. They also found a way to rally without their leading hitter, and are now headed to the World Series.6 comments on this story
Under MLB rules, Cabrera's sentence has been served and he is technically eligible to play in the championship series. But the Giants will not reinstate him. Adding his prodigious skills to its lineup might be legal, but the organization has sent the message that it would be wrong.
It is a powerful message, especially given the fact that the same franchise thrived for years behind another star player, Barry Bonds, who was widely suspected of using banned substances.
These events offer some optimism that we have come to a turning point in the world of sports and possibly beyond — an acknowledgment that the success of any individual competitor is a lesser value than a fair playing field for all.