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3Qs: Lance Armstrong and the ethics of sport

The International Cycling Organization announced on Monday that it would not appeal sanctions imposed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency against cyclist Lance Armstrong, meaning the cancer survivor would be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. His name will be erased from the event’s record books. Ronald Sandler, an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics Institute in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, examines the allegations — which Armstrong has denied — through the lens of sports ethics.

Many have argued that if so many athletes are using artificial means to improve performance, officials should eliminate the doping ban and bring all athletes to the same playing field. What is your take on this argument?

If everyone is doping, some people will say, the thing to do is just to allow it so the playing field is even again. However, this assumes that the only point of sport is to have an even and fair competition, in which no participant has an unwarranted advantage. But many sports, including cycling, are in fact about more than just fair competition.

In endurance sports like cycling, we are also interested in testing the limits of human capabilities. When there is doping of certain kinds, you’re no longer testing that. You’re looking at something altogether different. It’s the same in sports like running: What’s amazing about Usain Bolt being able to run 100 meters really, really fast is that he’s a human doing it. It would be less impressive if he were doing that thanks to bionic legs or bioengineered muscle tissue. Cycling and running are sports in which traditionally we have wanted to know what a human being is capable of. So long as that is part of what the point of those sport is, certain forms of technological or biological enhancement is going to be problematic. It would change the fundamental nature of the sport if we allowed substances like EPO or HGH.

What’s interesting, though, is that the answer to this question doesn’t have to be the same for all sports. Take, for example, a sport like football, which is a paradigmatic confrontational sport in which two teams face off and compete against each other strategically and physically. So long as the teams are competing according to the same rules, and neither has an unfair advantage, you’ll get that competition. For confrontational sports, it is possible to allow more pharmacological enhancement and still accomplish the point of the sport.

The full scope of Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping has become big news for many Americans, not just for close followers of cycling. What about this case makes the news resonate so strongly?

In the United States, Lance Armstrong is cycling. For the average person, he is the only cyclist you know, so his downfall carries with it the weight of an entire sport. That wasn’t the case in sports like baseball — in which you certainly had fallings, people like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds whose legacies are forever marked — because the sport isn’t so focused on just one person.

But there is also the additional element of how Armstrong denied these charges for so long. And even if he didn’t outright say he wasn’t doping, he had said he’d been tested and it didn’t show — he was certainly being misleading about it and violating not only the rules of the sport but also basic ethical standards by allegedly lying and cheating.


Lance Armstrong is known not just for his Tour de France victories but also for his recovery from testicular cancer and the formation of his Livestrong charity. How will people weigh these two sides of Armstrong?

Armstrong’s biographical narrative — that he had cancer then fought back with strength, willpower and effort — was the crucial basis for his foundation, which focuses on adversity and recovery powered by those same characteristics. Because these cheating charges are so counter to the narrative built around Armstrong and the central message of Livestrong, it makes them feel even more wrong and undercuts the foundation’s credibility, even as it does worthwhile work.

It’s troubling how these two sides of his career are linked. It’s not like he was being deceptive and cheating in his athletic career but his charity was completely independent of that. Again, the power of the Livestrong message is in part based on Lance Armstrong’s accomplishments as an athlete, done through effort, perseverance and strength of will. So these charges are definitely going to color how we think of his Livestrong activities. In fact, we have already seen him step down as chairman of Livestrong and some donors express their desire to get their money back.

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