Peddling Deception

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.

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William Atkinson
6 years ago
We rode with Lance a few years ago during the Tour of California; what erks me is that of all the pressing religious, thrological and world issues, the editors of America would waste their valuable time and press on taking issue with Lance. Bah Humbug
Robert Killoren
6 years ago
I found the tenor and tone of this editorial truly frightening. I do not know Lance Armstrong or his records, so I do not care whether he is guilty or not. One thing I did hear on NPR the day he conceded was that the assistant who brought the charge initially had an ax to grind and the teammate witnesses were offered concessions for offering testimony against Mr Armstrong. Perhaps that does not caste a shadow of a doubt, but regardless I find your absolute condemnation of the man unnecessary for making whatever point it is you are making. (By the way, other than castigating the man was there a lesson here you were making?) But I can accept bitterness from those whom he hurt by disappointing them so badly. But saying that his alleged infractions of a sport's rules and being unrepentant (I would like to know how you know that) take away his dignity I find beyond imagining from a Catholic publication. You do not really believe he is less than human and no longer deserves respect as a human life do you? This is bombast, right? And exactly what kind public confession does he need to make save his soul and regain his humanity? Really!
Robert O'Connell
6 years ago
Whatever the reason, I do not feel like a true Christian reading this article: why disparage somebody, especially under circumstances like Lance Armstrong's?  Setting aside the fact that he denies the allegations against him, we generally believe people are innocent until proven guilty.  What would Jesus do?
6 years ago
It is most definitelty and most appropriate for the "Super Hero" to be chastised for the fall from virtue. A hero is one we look up to, one we emulate, one we hold up to be admired. There is nothing to emulate or admire about the actions of Lance Armstrong. Heroic virtue is the symbol of a hero. Our obsession with "celebrity" (and the money that goes with it) needs to be tempered with righteousness and justice. It is entirely approprite for a Catholic magazine to clarify heroism in our culture of declining values and disregard for truth. Virtue is the only basis for true democracy and true liberality.
6 years ago
I teach at a high school. Remember during the Clinton-Lewinski affair that it became evident that many high school students polled regarded oral sex as not having 'real' sex? Well, there's a parallel here to cheating, and the tone set by Mr. Armstrong, who now sails the same ship of fools with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, A-Rod, etc., etc. I'm sorry but when it comes to doing something like cheating (or casual oral non-sex), we must persevere in teaching our adolescents that this is wrong, and that the end result will be a loss of dignity, credibility, "face," and contrition, resolve, and restitution are required HERE ON EARTH. Thank you for the article. It is most appropriate. Forgiving is one thing, ignoring is something we cannot do.
Michael Krajovic
6 years ago

While we will use Mr. Armstrong as another example of what not to do as our society routinely does when we have captured or exposed a perpetrator, we are once again losing an opportunity to ask deeper questions as to why things such as this happen. I will tell you that they happen all of the time, all around us, in every aspect of our lives. This behavior is pervasively embedded in our culture. And it is time to ask why.

There is more corruption in business, in politics, in just about any career than in sports. It is the mentality that many business people use to justify greedy behavior by believing that if they don’t take the person’s money, someone else will come along and take it. Most businesses are striving to sell everything they can at the highest price or charge the highest price they can for services. They want to profit as much as they can at the expense of another. Is this really any different than an athlete using whatever is available to remain competitive? In many ways it is worse because they can also cut corners on quality to reduce costs. This hurts more people than just their business competitor. It hurts the consumer.

In politics, the level of outright lying has reached unprecedented levels. The end justifies the means in another winner take all approach. And these people want to be our public leaders.

In the financial industry investors are routinely used as pawns to reap large commissions for the investment firms. In health care, millions of prescriptions are unnecessarily written by doctors who profit by making them. Heavy industries like oil and chemical fund their own research to refute or discredit independent research that exposes harmful effects of their industries. They even sue universities trying to turn objective science into an opposing, vindictive opinion.

This is not just about greed, but it is more about fear. Fear of not being recognized, appreciated, of not having enough, of being a failure. The thirst for power over others rather than to serve others is everywhere in our culture. Mr. Armstrong is just another human being playing the game to win in a culture that blindly recognizes only the winners. Who finished second all those years, or in the Olympics or in the Super Bowl? As a professional athlete Mr. Armstrong is not unlike a professional business person who attends a religious service on Sunday and on Monday says “nothing personal, it’s just business” to justify many immoral and corrupt behaviors. They may love their family, and therefore, they are willing to do anything to win to “take care” of their family in a very competitive world where there are clear winners and losers.

To shift our culture, we must begin to question our core beliefs about life and each other, and modify our moral teachings so that our society can develop a common set of values that become the culturally pervasive norm. This includes our religions who I suggest have failed to produce the values and guiding principles our society desperately needs. Loving your family is not the problem. The problem lies in how we define family. Sadly most people do not see all other human beings as being part of their family which is something our religions, society’s belief generators, need to work on. Mike Krajovic Uplifting


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