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Lance Armstrong - Cancer Hero or Crooked Athlete?

Updated on October 31, 2012

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 gets to keep his seven yellow jerseys. But everything else from his Tour de France wins is gone: Trophies, titles, and financial rewards.
Lance Armstrong gets to keep his seven yellow jerseys. But everything else from his Tour de France wins is gone: Trophies, titles, and financial rewards. | Source

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

Whatever happened in cycling, Lance Armstrong is still a cancer survivor, and he helped many other survivors through the LiveStrong foundation.
Whatever happened in cycling, Lance Armstrong is still a cancer survivor, and he helped many other survivors through the LiveStrong foundation. | Source

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.

Your View on Lance Armstrong

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    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Hi Paul: Thanks for your thoughtful question. I don't think one thing ever cancels out another. Each good thing can be appreciated. Each error can be understood, learned form, and forgiven.

      Let's see ourselves and one another as the amazing, multifaceted, and often wonderful beings that we are.

      And clearly, the doping doesn't cancel out all of Lance's athletics. Appropriately, it cancels out his victories, because he didn't play fair. But I could shoot myself up with dope, and I still couldn't finish even one leg of the Tour de France. He was a great athlete, though not a perfect person. (And who is?)

    • promaine profile image

      promaine 5 years ago from New York

      Hi SidKemp,

      This is a thoughtful hub on a tough topic. I still don't know where I stand, but I wonder if the doping really cancels everything out. Also, I wouldn't agree with people who say that Lance's philanthropic work cancels out his doping--it might mitigate the sleaziness, but he really did violate a trust, and I think that's what's so offensive. Yeah, doping seems to be rampant, but that doesn't it's OK. Thanks for the thoughtful hub! Paul

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks Yogakat. I mean "not alone" in two senses. One is that other people do it also - that is, the problem of doping, and other types of unethical behavior, are endemic to many professions these days. And the other is that it can't be done alone. It is a team effort even to do it.

      As for a tell-all book, most of Lance's colleagues have already confessed or been caught. There would not be much harm done, I think. Would it be a good thing? It depends on how it's done. I'm thinking of writing to him and offering to be his ghost writer. What do you think?

    • YogaKat profile image

      YogaKat 5 years ago from Oahu Hawaii

      The "not-alone" is a point well made. Who knows how many others elude the system. By "coming out" Lance sets a new bench mark for the sport and doping detection. I agree that he was aptly stripped of his Tour De France awards. Now Lance can be at peace unburdened by a charade. I respect his choice of "peace of mind" over "public image." Do you think he will write the "tell all" book? I kind of picture him keeping quiet to protect comrades.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Kris. It is hard to face these things directly. And, when we do, we lessen the risk that we will make the same kind of errors others make. Understanding their humanity helps us understand our own.

    • KrisL profile image

      KrisL 5 years ago from S. Florida

      Great hub.

      When I hear news like that of Armstrong's cheating I often do not know what to think, and sort of shy away from the issue.

      You face it head on, in a principled but compassionate way.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Hi Kaili. Thanks for your appreciation! I've never heard anyone doubt that LiveStrong is about helping cancer survivors. Best evidence is that Lance's cheating was limited to doping to increase his athletic ability, then hiding it.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image

      Kaili Bisson 5 years ago from Canada

      Sid, what a great Hub. I was really saddened when I heard about Lance and his fall from grace. I love watching the Tour and I wanted to believe....

      I do think that LiveStrong is a great organization, and whatever Lance's motives for setting it up, we can't lose sight of the good work it does.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thank you, Cat! That's what I was aiming for, and I was wondering if people would appreciate it. It seems like so many people want just to create heroes and villains these days. It would be wonderful if sports became more sportsmanlike (and sportwomanlike) again.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      You are good to remind us of his work popularizing the sport of cycling. I knew that in his winning years, but it kind of faded into the background behind LiveStrong and then the doping allegations.

    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

      What a shame! I prefer to focus though on the good he has done through Livestrong and the inspiration he has given to cancer victims and survivors. Being stripped of his medals and accolades is apt punishment and a tough lesson which hopefully has reached other competitors who might now think twice before they act in unethical ways.

      A very well-written, informative, and unbiased hub, Sid. Thank you!

    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 5 years ago from Nottingham UK

      It's very easy for people to judge but without armstrongs achievements (however questionable) Cycling would be much more a minority sport across America and maybe even the world over.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Hi CyclingFitness!

      I really appreciate your open-minded attitude. Unless Lance writes a tell-all book, we'll never know for sure. And even then, we'd only have his view. But we can realize that there are two standards higher than gossip: the forensic standard for civil action, which was met; and the forensic standard for criminal action, which was not met. The USADA and UCI felt that their actions were supported by strong enough evidence to justify and protect them legally. But, earlier this year, Lance was not charged with any crimes.

      I appreciate your willingness to see the value in LiveStrong and in the reputation of cycling. You know how to take the bad with the good.

    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 5 years ago from Nottingham UK

      I love the way USADA labelled it as the most sophisticated system sport have ever seen- maybe they forgot about what happened in East Germany for many years.

      I still find it hard that a man who has effectively not failed a blood test can be classed as a doper. There are so many stories being told however that its hard to believe he was clean

      There is also no doubt that Armstrong has done signicant good in the world through Livestrong and opening many eyes to the sport of cycling that his legacy expands much further than his Tour de France wins


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