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.
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.
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.
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.