Did Lance Armstrong Betray our Trust?

Not long ago in this blog I recounted a story about my star-struck meeting with seven time Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong, a hero whose image has since much tarnished.

I found myself too tongue-tied to ask the driving and driven champion whether biking was ever play. But the other question that hung on my mind was “Hey Lance, what about the doping?”

Understanding Armstrong’s place in history depends on the way we unpack the moral issues that attend competition.

Here’s the background. Since the late 1980s, many stories have circulated about pervasive use in international cycling of performance enhancing drugs such as the long-undetectable red blood-cell booster erythroprotein (EPO). The U.S. champion cyclist Greg LeMonde became a prominent opponent of doping in cycling after the 1989 Tour de France and publically called out Armstrong in 2001. The Irish journalist David Walsh has been writing increasingly pointed exposés about Armstrong’s doping (drawn from eyewitness testimony and overwhelming circumstantial evidence) since 2004. Year after year, governing bodies have sanctioned one cycling luminary after another for drug use. Yet, when Armstrong admitted to Oprah that he had used the drugs, many made out that they had been shocked, shocked, at the revelations.

Why the pervasive denial and sense of betrayal? Four main reasons, seems to me. First, national pride and skepticism. We Americans liked the brash Texan who’d done the impossible by hijacking the national sport of France; when the French press raised allegations against the champion, we suspected spite and sour grapes. Second, Armstrong’s illness. After a diagnosis of metastatic testicular cancer, he and his public regarded the treatment regime as a “battle” and with victory his legend grew, insulating him. Third, Armstrong’s triumphs on two wheels empowered him to raise nearly half a billion dollars for the Livestrong Foundation. Weighing bad sportsmanship against the good of human kind the colossal fundraising initiative surely dwarfs any infringement in the rules of cycling. Does the end justify the means? In this case it is very tempting to say yes.

To cycling fans who felt betrayed, however, special prosecutors who had reputations to build, and commercial sponsors who fled a ruined image, the question was not so easy to answer.

The moral issues about using performance enhancing drugs are hard to see clearly unless we try to understand the relationship of play and playfulness to competition.

For starters let’s take it as given that you can be said to be playing if you can lose and still enjoy the game. It follows, too, that if you can bear to lose, you will be unlikely or less likely to cheat. But if too much hangs on the outcome of a game—too much craving for a self-image as a champion or too hot pursuit of financial gain, for examples, cheating becomes a likely option. And cheating is, axiomatically, bad. But it helps to remember that rules that constitute games are often a matter of convention rather than of ultimate morality—of “good” and “evil” outside the game. Convention and agreement determines rules against performance enhancing drugs.

The Tour de France began as a commercial advertising scheme and publicity stunt and an occasion for gambling. It’s no surprise that, beginning in 1886 and nearly every year since, some instance of cyclists seeking artificial performance enhancement has come to light. Riders have swallowed concoctions containing caffeine, cocaine, “horse ointment,” strychnine dissolved in wine, and nitroglycerine to stimulate the heart and deepen breathing. One French cyclist in the 1920s admitted “we run on dynamite!” Contestants gulped aspirin and other painkillers and by the 1940s openly resorted to amphetamine cocktails. The Italian champion, Causto Coppi, called these “la bomba.” By the 1960s, cyclists had discovered vasodialators and “blood doping”—retransfusion—to increase the oxygen carrying potential of the blood. In recent years teams appealed to pharmacists for cortisone and growth hormone, and turned to them for undetectable substances, too, like the EPO that fueled Armstrong’s victories.

Note, please, that all these potions and strategies are plainly dangerous, and that when governing bodies ban them in the interest of competitors’ health for the hazards they present, the moral issues remain unclouded.

But in 1965, the governing association adopted anti-doping rules mainly in pursuit of fairness. And fairness is a more complicated issue. Competitors at this high level tended to regard designer drugs much as they did the other innovative technologies (lighter materials or aerodynamic clothing and helmets, for example) that provided a competitive advantage. And so they reacted with disbelief and outrage at the attempt to regulate  medical breakthroughs, seeing little differences between the advantages that chemists or  engineers offered. Riders and team organizers never fully accepted the authority of the regulators who they saw as interlopers. Team doctors conspired with riders to devise clever (and sometimes hilarious) subterfuges to get round testing regimes. Sponsors studiously ignored the trend.

And so, moving to the fourth reason that fans looked the other way—pervasive use changes the moral calculus. Recall that once Armstrong forfeited his titles officials scrambled to find a single cyclist who appeared on the podium untainted by doping. With doping so pervasive hasn’t the field of play been leveled? And doesn’t a level field imply fairness in competition?

Cyclists sacrifice much and court risk at every turn, but unlike professional wrestlers who care only about the entertainment value of their scripted contests, most professional cyclists cannot bear to lose. Armstrong declared to the television personality Oprah Winfrey “my ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw. That desire, that attitude, that arrogance….”

Fans are surely entitled to a general disappointment about his failure to tell the truth, but keep in mind that Armstrong sacrificed as much as any and more than most in pursuit of victory. No one competed harder. The champion can have betrayed our trust, however, only if we, ourselves, have looked the other way when competition squeezed out play.