Lance Armstrong - Cancer Hero or Crooked Athlete?
Lance Armstrong - No Simple Answers
We all want celebrities to be heroes or villains. But they are really people - much more like all the rest of us than we want to admit. They do wonderful and terrible things, and they don't do them alone. As is true with O. J. Simpson and Tiger Woods, the really important lessons of Lance Armstrong's career are not simple, nor are they easy to face.
Lance Armstrong: He's Lost What He Won
Lance Armstrong - October 2012 News
Lance Armstrong - great athlete, or extraordinary cheater? The official decision is finally in. In October 2012, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) issued its final report finding Lance Armstrong had violated athletic rules and ethics from 1998 on. And the UCI (Union International de Cycling, or International Cycling Union), which oversees the Tour de France accepted the decision, and stripped Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France wins.
It will be easy for some to simply see Lance Armstrong as all bad. But those who do will miss valuable lessons we could all learn. Yes, he was unethical and crooked. Instead of winning seven Tours de France, we now know that he spoiled those races.
But that isn't the whole story. The whole story is a story of a hero who is also, ethically, a crook. And that is hard to face.
Lance Armstong - Amazing Athlete - Crooked Athlete
What can we say about Lance Armstrong as a cyclist:
- He was an amazing athlete. One has to be amazing to compete in the Tour de France even once, much less seven times. And, while he probably couldn't have won those races without dope, he was certainly able to ride in them.
- He was crooked. He used dope and avoided detection. He cheated in order to win.
- He was good at his cover-up. The time between the Watergate break-in and Nixon's resignation was only about two years. Lance Armstrong's cover-up lasted 14 years, from 1998 to 2012.
- He didn't do it alone. The doping appears to have involved teammates and tip-offs about the timing of random drug tests, and avoiding drug tests in a variety of ways. The scandal is social and organizational; it's not all about Lance.
LiveStrong: The Cancer Survivor Lives On
Lance Armstrong - Cancer Survivor, Cancer Hero
We can also say that for sure that Lance Armstrong is a cancer survivor - an cyclist who kept rolling through cancer, surgery, and chemotherapy to return to his racing career.
And we can acknowledge a tremendous contribution inspiring and empowering cancer survivors and their families through the LiveStrong Foundation. Even if his fame as an athlete was ill-gotten, he used it well. And there is evidence of this - the corporate sponsors who have backed away from him after the USADA ruling are continuing to contribute to LiveStrong.
Lance Armstrong - Not Alone
Cycling is a team sport. And, unfortunately, so is cheating.
There is a special kind of heroism in team sports - something greater than the classic American image of the lone cowboy. I feel deeply touched when I think of Lance Armstrong riding Stage 18 of the Tour de France in honor of his teammate Fabio Casartelli, who crashed and died in Stage 15. It is a deeply nourishing vision: Even when one person fails, the team keeps going. Perhaps even more than being a hero, many of us want to feel that we are part of a team, a community, or a family that widens and extends our lives and gives us something to live for.
But cheating is also a team effort. An official statement from the USADA in October 2012 says that Lance Armstrong was part of "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen." As best we understand it, the doping involved many athletes, some medical professionals, and supporting assistants. Investigation into the doping cast doubt on the professionalism of a number of athletic associations and drug testing laboratories. Central claims include compromised random drug tests and poor record-keeping that made it possible for outsiders to break the confidentiality of the drug testing. There was even some concern that bribery through donation affected the UCI, the organization that oversees the Tour de France.
We do not succeed alone, and we do not sin alone.
The Doping Scandal - Lessons Learned
The biggest lesson of Lance Armstrong's life is that we do not succeed alone, and we do not sin alone. We are part of a team and influenced by others in every success, and in ever error.
We have a belief that being professional also means being ethical. But that is no longer true, if it ever was. My own sense is that it was never as true and pure as we would like to think, and that our character and ethics, individually, and as a society, are getting less decade by decade. Our heroes, never perfect, are now often deeply flawed. Our corporations and professional associations, once protectors of ethics and safety, no longer protect us, and sometimes even guide us into corruption.
Those of us who believe in doing good must be more vigilant than ever. We cannot trust the guidance of those our society says we should trust. Athletes are not the heroes they seem to be. Doctors, even when ethical, are trained and kept up to date by pharmaceutical companies who have evaded or manipulated FDA rules to get unsafe drugs approved. As we try to live safe and honorable lives, we must be careful who we trust.
This is especially true because, once we make a mistake, it will be very hard to get out of it. Assuming that the doping allegations Lance Armstrong faces are true, there are understandable reasons why he evaded the charges so long. Some, of course, are selfish. But, in evading exposure, he was also protecting friends, professional colleagues, and the cancer survivors that LiveStrong cares for. I can understand - if not approve - his longstanding efforts to proclaim his innocence, now shown to be false.
May we all take care in our efforts, and in our choice of friends and professional colleagues!
Let's Not Forget
Lance Armstrong also cheated cancer, and lived. And he went on to help many cancer survivors and their families try to do the same.
Lance Armstrong - Person, Hero, or Villain?
At the end of the day, Lance Armstrong is a person. He is a phenomenal athlete, part of a phenomenal athletic team. And he is a phenomenal cheat, part of a cheating team. One kind of cancels out the other.
At the same time, he also cheated cancer and lived. And he not only survived, but he became healthy and athletic after cancer. He cheated death and debility, and that's a cheat I can live with. And he generously supports cancer survivors and their families. Nothing cancels that out.