Reflections Blog

Lance, We Hardly Knew Ya

Lance Armstrong’s colossal house of cards recently came crashing down during two well-orchestrated interviews with Oprah Winfrey on national television.  For the media, it was a ratings extravaganza fueled by the public flogging of a once-revered sports legend.  For cycling insiders, it was the lancing of a boil that had been festering for years.  And for many Americans and others around the world it was the humiliating discovery that the hero they had worshipped and cheered through one victory after another was a fraud, a little like learning that your favorite uncle is a crook and a pedophile.

What makes Lance Armstrong’s downfall so bitter for us is that we had elevated him to such stellar heights.  He was the celebrity cancer survivor, the solemn spokesman for defeating death. A fierce competitor, driven and strong, he exemplified what you could make of yourself if you were as focused and determined and disciplined as he was.  He created Livestrong Foundation, the cancer nonprofit that raised the hopes of hundreds of thousands of cancer sufferers.  He won the Tour de France, the granddaddy of cycling’s grueling races, seven consecutive times.  He was everything we hoped we could be if only we were more like him.

To learn that the man who accomplished all this was a fraud makes our hopes and dreams pathetic.  If what you look up to is an empty shell, if what you aspire to become evaporates in a stinking cloud, if what motivates you to work harder, run faster, and struggle for perfection, even when it hurts to do so, is a lie, then what does that say about you?  What does it say about humanity?

Heroes play an indispensable role in our lives.  According to Scott LeBarge, Associate Professor of Classics and Philosophy at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, “We need heroes first and foremost because our heroes help define the limits of our aspirations.  We largely define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals—things like courage, honor, and justice—largely define us.  Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy.”[i]

Courage, honor, and justice are core concepts in our definition of character, and when someone we admire—Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Marion Jones, Greg Mortenson—turn out to be flawed, we question whether these virtues are real or are merely angels of our longing.

Some people, perhaps many, in the cycling world knew the truth about Lance Armstrong and likely know the truth about other cyclists who have used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).  It seems to have been cycling’s dirty laundry, as doping is almost certainly the dirty laundry in other sports as well.  In their quest for glory, riches, medals, and fame, some athletes will be tempted to use PEDs if they think they won’t be caught.

It appears that in cycling a form of omerta—the mafia’s code of silence—protected cheaters like Lance Armstrong.  People may have acted to protect the sport, or they may have been using PEDs themselves, or they may not have wanted to risk retribution if they spoke out.  The notable exception in Armstrong’s case was Betsy Andreu, the wife of Armstrong’s cycling friend, Frankie Andreu.  She was in an Indiana hospital room with Armstrong while he was undergoing cancer treatment.  The physician asked Armstrong what drugs he was taking, and to her surprise he admitted taking five different PEDs.

But when she dared to tell what she knew, Armstrong tried to intimidate and threaten her into silence and, if that didn’t work, to discredit her as a witness.  Armstrong had the public image, the money, and the power to make her appear jealous, vindictive, and unstable.  He sued or threatened to sue anyone who dared accuse him to using PEDs, and his intimidation worked for well over a decade.

After Armstrong’s public confessions to Oprah Winfrey, Betsy Andreu was interviewed by Sports Illustrated writer Austin Murphy, who had long been one of Lance Armstrong’s cheerleaders in the press.  She talked about her lengthy and discouraging struggle to tell the truth about Armstrong and have a decent life with her husband and children.  Austin concludes the interview by saying, “Don’t you think the more powerful lesson [your children will] get is that, for a decade, their Mom went toe-to-toe with a far more powerful adversary, fighting for the truth, and in the end, she won.  That’s a pretty powerful example, and lesson, right?”

Andreu replies, “Yeah, I get that.  But sometimes if feels like there’s no profit in the truth, right?  Would you rather have Lance’s money right now, or my reputation?”[ii]

This is precisely the dilemma.  The truth matters.  Or it should anyway.  Being honorable and honest matters.  Or it should.  Winning fairly, winning because you are truly the best or have worked the hardest or have sacrificed the most or are genuinely the most talented, disciplined, and well trained—these things matter.  Or else it’s all a lie.

But fair and honorable people like Betsy Andreu come to question whether it is profitable to be truthful when they see how lying and cheating can benefit a person like Lance Armstrong—a least in the short run.   

It is good that Armstrong was eventually found out, that those (like Betsy Andreu) who dared to tell the truth were eventually vindicated, because his dominant ethic-in-practice was that “winning by any means is okay.”  And if everyone adopted this ethic the human race would not be fit to live with.

Cheating is not okay.  Winning by any means is not okay.  The ends do not always justify the means.

Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour-de-France titles because fairness does matter.  Hopefully, his disgrace will serve as a lesson for young people inclined to cheat to get ahead.  But it will only if other cheaters are caught and disgraced, only if we collectively reinforce the idea that a person’s ethics in principle (honesty, integrity, fairness, honor, and courage) must match his or her ethics in practice.

Unfortunately, once someone takes the low road the only way he can sustain a publicly acceptable image is to compound his initial wrongdoing by resorting to equally deplorable behaviors.  Armstrong wanted not only to win; he wanted the admiration of the crowd.  He wanted us to revere him as much as he wanted sponsors to pay him millions.   So he crafted an image of an honest, disciplined, talented, hard-working, cancer-surviving super athlete.  But this house of cards became increasingly difficult to maintain as his critics grew bolder and more vocal.  The only way he could protect his image was to silence his critics, which he did through threats and intimidation.

In Elements of Influence (2011), my book on the uses of ethical and unethical influence strategies, I define intimidating and threatening as follows:

Intimidating is imposing oneself on others; forcing people to comply by being loud, overbearing, abrasive, arrogant, aloof, or insensitive.  It is the preferred technique of bullies.

Threatening is harming others or threatening to harm them if they do not comply; making examples of some people so others know that the threats are real.  It is the preferred technique of dictators and despots.

These dark-side influence tactics take away people’s legitimate right to say no, force them to comply with something contrary to their wishes or best interests, mislead them, or make them act when they would otherwise choose not to.[iii]  These methods of influence are effective, at least for a time, but they are unethical.  They destroy the relationship between the influencer and the influencees, and they create enemies and grudges.  Eventually, those wronged may gain the upper hand and punish the wrongdoer.  Bernie Madoff is in prison.  Saddam Hussein was hanged.  Muammar Gaddafi was shot.  Lance Armstrong may lose all or most of his fortune as the people and institutions he deceived line up to sue him—and his name will forever be linked to doping and deception.

That’s a sad end for the Lance Armstrong we once knew and admired.  But then we really didn’t know him, did we?


[i] Scott LeBarge, “Heroism:  Why Heroes Are Important.”


[ii] Austin Murphy, “Betsy Andreu always knew that Lance Armstrong doped.”

[iii] Terry R. Bacon, Elements of Influence (Amacom Books, 2011), pp. 189-90.

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