3Qs: Downhill course for Lance Armstrong

August 28, 2012

Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of Sport in Society, examines the decision by the United States Anti-Doping Agency to strip cyclist Lance Armstrong of his Tour de France victories. Photo by Dreamstime.

Road racing cyclist Lance Arm­strong won the Tour de France a record seven con­sec­u­tive times after beating tes­tic­ular cancer in the late 1990s. But last week Arm­strong was stripped of his vic­to­ries by the United States Anti-​​Doping Agency after the world-​​famous ath­lete chose to stop fighting the doping charges levied against him. We asked Dan Lebowitz, the exec­u­tive director of Sport in Society, a North­eastern Uni­ver­sity research center, to examine the decision.

1. What does the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to strip Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victories mean within the cycling community and, more broadly, within the sporting community at large?

This deci­sion is, in many respects, another emphatic excla­ma­tion point on how much this era of performance-​​enhancing drugs has cre­ated a cloud of sus­pi­cion over all that is sport. There is no per­for­mance, no record, no phe­nom­enal feat that can escape this spot­light. This is some­thing larger than Lance Arm­strong and the cycling com­mu­nity. It is, instead, another example of lost inno­cence in which the leaders and stars of our global com­mu­nity become exem­plary not for their great­ness, but instead for the fal­li­bility that plagues all of humanity.

The lesson here is also larger than sport. We seem to have entered an era where the cel­e­bra­tion of accom­plish­ment is insep­a­rable from the accom­pa­nying desire to uncover any breach of integrity that led to that accom­plish­ment. In the arena of sport, this is the legacy of performance-​​enhancing drugs. In the arenas beyond sport, what I would call the PED phe­nom­enon has led to an increas­ingly intense spot­light on all performance.

2. In the United States, Lance Armstrong’s identity is tied to more than just his victories — he is also known as an activist, cancer survivor and for his Livestrong foundation. How do you expect the broader public will respond to Armstrong losing his titles? How will it affect him as a figure in the popular consciousness?

As with all things, I think there are those who will con­tinue to exalt him and those who will choose to vilify him. My hope is that people will be more intro­spec­tive than vis­ceral in under­standing the com­plex­i­ties of human char­acter. In many respects, Lance Arm­strong has been a cham­pion for causes, com­mu­nity and cancer vic­tims. In other facets of his life, he may have made deci­sions that caused some to ques­tion his moral char­acter or his inten­tions. This does not make him unique as much as it makes him human.

There is much to cel­e­brate about Lance Arm­strong, the ath­lete, the activist, and the human. The public con­scious­ness would dis­tin­guish its own col­lec­tive humanity by acknowl­edging his accom­plish­ments as well as his fail­ings. The public dis­course of today seems unduly tainted by a divi­sive­ness that con­strains social jus­tice, community-​​building and col­lec­tive good. This con­straint is largely caused by a desire to frame all things as either dis­tinctly good or dis­tinctly evil. This dis­cus­sion about Lance Arm­strong, in a micro­cosmic way, gives us all an oppor­tu­nity to have a dif­ferent type of dis­cus­sion about the human con­di­tion, suc­cesses and fail­ings, teaching moments, and lessons learned on the con­tinuum to a greater global community.

3. What comes next in terms of doping prosecutions? Can we expect more revered athletes to fall from grace? Will this ruling change doping practices among current athletes?

In this week alone, two pro­fes­sional base­ball players, a finalist for last year’s Heisman, some other pro­fes­sional ath­letes and Lance Arm­strong, were all in the national spot­light for either PED use or other drug use. Fur­ther, in another national story, it has been largely spec­u­lated that Roger Clemens’ one game stint in the Inter­na­tional League was a pointed attempt to avoid being in the same Hall of Fame induc­tion dis­cus­sion as Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. This era of sus­pi­cion involving PEDs is per­va­sive, far-​​reaching and vigilant.

There is no doubt that count­less other ath­letes will be scru­ti­nized, charged and put out there for national dis­play. The issue is grand, the stages are grand and the impact is grand in terms of not only the integrity of the games involved, but also the mod­eling of behavior, par­tic­u­larly for youth who adu­late their ath­letic heroes. Sport is a great lead­er­ship engine. As part of that engine, ath­letes are expected to lead by example. That expec­ta­tion is impacted by the propen­sity for humans to make some bad deci­sions. It is fur­ther impacted by the amount of money involved, par­tic­u­larly the direct cor­re­la­tion between exor­bi­tant pay­ment and per­for­mance. Many ath­letes will con­tinue to use. Many ath­letes will con­tinue to get caught and many teaching moments will again follow. Hope­fully, we can con­tinue to engage in con­ver­sa­tion around these inci­dents in a way that imparts lead­er­ship, integrity, col­lec­tive good and social justice.