The sad saga of Lance Armstrong, the super-athlete who created legions of loyalists among American sports fans who otherwise could care less about grown men riding bikes six hours a day for weeks on end—along with hordes of haters in France who couldn’t stomach a foreigner dominating their national sport—involves more contradictions than the sponsors' logos plastered across the jerseys of the elite teams competing each summer in the Tour de France.
Before Lance, before his unprecedented seven straight Tour victories—a string not even the Great Gretzky, the Damn Yankees or any other sports dynasty ever approached—we knew nothing about pelotons or polka dot jerseys. We were ignorant of lead-out trains and could care less about the tactics of attacking on the Col du Galibier or Alpe d’Huez. Before Armstrong became the alpha cyclist who badgered teammates, bloodied rivals and browbeat French reporters with equal disdain, we were forced to fill our July sports calendars with football training camps, meaningless soccer matches and the “thrill” of counting down to baseball’s end-of-the-month trading deadline.
As a result of his string of cycling victories, and an equally impressive string of celebrity girlfriends, Armstrong not only generated ratings for cable’s cycling coverage never seen before or since, he leveraged his compelling backstory about beating testicular cancer through hard work and willpower into the Livestrong Foundation, a $500 million money machine funded by donations from Lance lovers, cancer survivors and corporate titans like Nike, Anheuser-Busch and Trek.
But last week’s decision by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency—a quasi-governmental group with an acronym uncomfortably similar to USDA—to strip him of his tour titles, ban him for life from the sport and hang a scarlet letter signifying drug cheater around his sun-tanned neck not only puts the Livestrong’s survival in jeopardy, it raises questions that transcend athletics and spill over into ethics.
A legacy in tatters
In the wake of stunning testimony about blood doping, designer PEDs and ritualistic injections of various illegal concoctions dreamed up by doctors who long ago left their Hippocratic oaths buried underneath piles of syringes, satchels full of drugs and bags of blood for transfusing, Armstrong’s legacy has been utterly ruined. Instead of the athletic animal who outlasted and out-maneuvered his competitors, he’s now seen a cheat and a liar, a disgraced doper who’s traveling that well-trodden road that takes even the highest profiles stars from phenom to fraud.
However, his case raises some issues worth pondering, questions that affect business, politics and the professions that its practitioners try so diligently to communicate trust.
1). If everyone’s doing it, is it still cheating? By definition, cheating means evading the rules that govern acceptable behavior. Whether it’s committing fouls in a basketball game or ginning up exaggerated deductions on your tax return, there are situations where the rules are relatively clear, the punishment explicit and for most people, the risks greater than the benefits.
But rules evolve and standards change—remember the wrenching controversies a generation ago when Olympic athletes were summarily stripped of the “amateur” status for accepting a couple of bucks under the table?
Or how about those four-ways stop signs on quiet, residential intersections where you could spend days waiting for a motorist to actually bring the car to a halt. Are those other 99.99% of drivers guilty of breaking the law?
If USADA convinces the International Cycling Union to officially strip away Armstrong’s Tour titles, who does it give them to? Other likely dopers who probably used performance-enhancing drugs and still couldn’t beat Lance? Between Armstrong, three-time champion Alberto Contador, under suspension for a positive clenbuterol test, dethroned champ Floyd Landis, who tested positive for testosterone and 1996 champion Jan Ullrich, suspended for (allegedly) being part of an organized doping ring, there aren’t a lot of squeaky clean cyclists left to accept Lance’s tainted titles.
2). If a conviction is all testimony and no evidence, does it really represent justice? Respected sports journalist Sally Jenkins memorably wrote in the Washington Post last month about the federal prosecution of baseball’s home run champion Barry Bonds for perjury regarding his alleged steroid use that, “The Balco affair [was] the only so-called drug investigation in which the manufacturers and the distributors were given plea deals in order to throw the book at the users. What that told us was that it was big-game hunting, not justice. It was careerist investigators trying to put athletes’ antlers on their walls.”
USADA’s mission to take down Lance Armstrong reeks of a similar perverted motive. That doesn’t mean drug use should unnoticed or unpunished, but it certainly seems as if snatching away victories won more than a dozen years ago from a guy who’s 40 years old and retired isn’t exactly the most efficient way to clean up contemporary cycling.
3). Finally, if someone is accused of wrongdoing in one area, is everything they do tainted? This matters because our 24-7 news cycle and pervasive (invasive?) electronic media unearth scandals among the glitterati with a regularity that rivals solar transit. From Watergate felons to reformed gangbangers to ex-financial fraud artists now marketing their anti-scam skill sets for pay-to-play audiences, a vast gray area shrouds the motives and reputations of bad guys turned good.
Some we revere; others we revile.
In the case of Livestrong, questions have arisen as to whether good governance requires that Lance step down from being the face of the foundation’s fund-raising. But he hasn’t been convicted of any criminal acts, and even if he did fire up EPO and designer PEDs in order to ride a bicycle up the side of a mountain so steep the road challenges a car and driver, is that a transgression on the scale of tax evasion or predatory lending or legal malfeasance?
Plenty of those guys, who actually were convicted, have successfully refurbished their careers and their reps.
Only our fear of terrorism exceeds our national paranoia about drugs. As a consequence, we waste enormous law enforcement resources on low-level offenders, toss the Fourth Amendment into the trash when conducting prosecutorial witch hunts and sit around convincing ourselves that millions of felons rotting in prison cells for drug addictions far better handled with treatment programs represents a justice system of which we can be proud.
This we do while gulping down caffeine, sucking on nicotine and imbibing alcohol most every evening—just to soothe some of the daily stress, doncha know?
In the end, the entire Lance Armstrong affair is a morality play exposing society’s ethical angst when our sense of clarity conflicts with our celebrity obsessions.
Are there other issues more urgent, more worthy of our attention? Of course. Are there lessons to be learned about embracing the mantra that the ends justify the means? You bet.
But rather than take sides on whether the treatment of Lance Armstrong is fair or foul, we’d do better to hold up a mirror to our collective conclusions, and ask the most important question of all:
Do we like what we see?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.