The resignation on Oct. 17 of the cycling superstar Lance Armstrong from the chairmanship of the organization for cancer survivors that he founded in 1997, following his own dramatic recovery from cancer, closed the door on one of the most spectacular careers in athletic history. In the immediate aftermath, corporate sponsors who had enriched him to the tune of more than $100 million dropped him. The world’s greatest cyclist’s seven triumphs in the Tour de France were the product of not only heroic human effort but performance-enhancing drugs. The scandal, according to the United States Anti-Doping Agency report that followed a two-year investigation, involved a complex conspiracy of teammates, coaches, a masseuse and drug suppliers—one of the greatest scandals in sports history.
Mr. Armstrong denies doping, but he has stopped fighting the U.S.A.D.A. accusations. Among his dwindling number of supporters, the most common defense of Mr. Armstrong’s actions is “everybody does it.” Indeed, Mr. Armstrong and his fellow conspirators used that very argument to rope into the plot younger racers, some of whom had thirsted for the excitement of international competitive cycling all their lives. The familiar syllogism ran: All the top racers use drugs; you wish to race with the top racers; therefore, you should use drugs too. If “everyone” is breaking the rules, the rules become meaningless. Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, argued in Newsweek (9/3) that Lance Armstrong is one of the few “heroes” America has left. “Even if he did take enhancers, so what?” He was just “leveling the playing field.” Those who are trying to bring him down are either jealous or just making a name for themselves, said Mr. Bissinger. Even less convincing arguments from Mr. Armstrong’s apologists involve his status as a celebrity-hero: He is a hero because he fought and overcame cancer; he is also a philanthropist, whose well-run charity has served countless cancer victims; his faults do not define the man.
But consider that from 1998 to 2005 Mr. Armstrong led a conspiracy involving teammates whom he bullied to dope up or get out. The deception involved an amalgam of transfused blood, testosterone and other natural and unnatural substances. One such substance, an artificial blood booster known as EPO, stimulates the production of red blood cells. EPO is potentially lethal and is known to generate and multiply cancerous cells. The complex chemistry of the substances involved made detection of Mr. Armstrong’s activity all the more difficult. Moreover, when faced with the prospect of intensive testing, Mr. Armstrong would simply lie or disappear when the inspectors approached.
The story of his teammates’ complicity is as old as Faust—the promise of fame, wealth and the company of the elite, all of which, at first, are attractive. Mr. Armstrong’s accomplices rationalized their cheating by convincing themselves that nothing would be lost except, they failed to realize, their honor. A pivotal figure, the Tour de France cyclist Kayle Leogrande, according to The New York Times, casually admitted his dope use to one of his team’s assistants, who, to his surprise, was “not O.K. with that.” The teammate then spoke to the anti-doping agency, which opened an investigation that led to Mr. Armstrong’s downfall. On Oct. 22 the International Cycling Union stripped Mr. Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and banned him from the sport.
The most disturbing stories about Mr. Armstrong’s activities came from teammates who finally realized that even though “everybody does it,” doping was still wrong. Some members of Mr. Armstrong’s team, who for years had gone along with the scam, opened their eyes and for various reasons—not all self-serving—saw how the moral compromises they had made had cost too much. Doping was wrong, they now realized, because it violated the ideals they had been taught by their parents, ideals that had motivated them as young people to compete. One teammate’s father nearly destroyed himself with drugs; the son was shocked to see himself cycling down the same road.
How can Lance Armstrong, who still insists that he never used drugs, close the door on this part of his life and regain his dignity? With great difficulty. Though Christians believe in redemption, Mr. Armstrong is not contrite. Even if he chooses to tell the truth now, proving to his family, friends and former supporters that he is a changed man will be harder than racing up the Pyrenees. Mr. Armstrong’s public life is over. He should now devote his energy and attention to confessing and making reparation. He must at last reject the gospel of winning at all costs and spend his remaining days helping his former colleagues to excise the moral cancer that now enfeebles the sport that made him famous.