Is Lance Armstrong a bad guy?

Following the apparent ‘confession’ to Oprah Winfrey, have we actually learnt anything more about Armstrong? My inclination is to say no. What we know about Armstrong is that doper or not, cheat or not, he was still an exceptional cyclist. Yet, what the interview emphasised was his Machiavellian streak. He knows how to play people, to influence them and demand their loyalty and he’s never been afraid to get what he wants through using them and casting them away when they’re no longer needed. Unfortunately, as with all Machiavellian characters, the trail of destruction that they leave behind eventually catches up with them. The interview with Oprah was an attempt to wrestle some control back over his life and other’s perception of him. He failed miserably. The bitterness and betrayal that people feel towards Armstrong is so deep that only a genuine display of humility and remorse would have given any chance at redemption. Instead, his insincerity was apparent and he’s only managed to damage his reputation further.

Armstrong’s narrative will be used as morality play. It is the story of the bad guy who gets to the top and then suffers a dramatic and humiliating fall. But is this a fair representation? What ever you might think of Armstrong and his character, the fact is that he has raised millions of dollars for a cancer charity. If he hadn’t had doped, if he hadn’t had made a dramatic comeback from suffering such a debilitating and deadly disease this money might not have been raised and peoples lives that are afflicted by cancer might be all the poorer. So the utilitarian might calculate that the Armstrong story is actually a good one whereby his choice to cheat had more beneficial consequences than a choice not to.

My view is that Armstrong is a flawed character that has no empathy for others. He isn’t someone that I would want to spend any time with. But that is not to say he hasn’t done amazing or inspirational things. And he rightly says that he’s not the only one that is culpable in the doping scandal within cycling. A culture developed whereby doping was the norm and he used that to his advantage. If we agree with Armstrong’s view on cheating (which I don’t necessarily) and that cheating is the deliberate attempt to break rules to gain an advantage on others, and there is no real or theoretical advantage since ‘everyone is doing it’ then at the very least we can say that Armstrong is guilty of gamesmanship – in that he attempted to use the rules or the lack of the enforcement of the rules to his advantage. The perception of Armstrong being more bad (yes I know it’s not good English) than others (e.g. Millar, Hamilton, etc.) is that a) he lied more about his doping and with greater conviction b) he is still trying to manipulate his audience into believing and trusting him. But this doesn’t make him technically any more guilty than any of the other athletes who have been guilty of doping.

So perhaps rather than feeling vitriolic towards Armstrong, we should just recognise him for the deeply flawed person that he is. But we also shouldn’t forget the good that has come out of him.

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8 thoughts on “Is Lance Armstrong a bad guy?

  1. there is now a question on whether Lance Armstrong’s ability was good enough for him to win his races on his own ability or did he cheat the 2nd place rider of the winning position as it was the drugs that enabled him to win. He has proved to be a liar by insisting that he hadn’t taken drugs and he branded the woman who accused him of this, a liar and doesn’t have the common decency to say I’m sorry, you are not a liar and you were right in your comments. He has lied to the world in general and has cheated other riders and the world in general with his wins that may have been due to the banned drugs enhancing his ability. It doesn’t matter that he benefitted others by his charity fundraising, he is still a liar and a cheat. To say he isnt bad because he has subsequently raised a lot of money for cancer charity is akin to say Hitler wasn’t a bad man because he believed he was right and was kind to others and may have donated lots to the German people from his genocide.
    Is Lane Armstrong a bad man? – depends on your perception of bad! Is it bad to lie and cheat? In my book yes especially if it is to benefit you at others’ expense. Is it good to raise lots of money for charities? No,
    Lance Armstrong is a selfish, unpleasant liar and a cheat but people the world over will continue to debate this and disagree.

  2. [Godwin’s law in action in the last comment. Just a touch.]

    Dr E: The charitable side of things is more complex, surely, than just the amount of money he raised?

    Armstrong was a truly inspirational character- Mr Clean who fought off cancer and became a legend- someone that cancer patients could look at and realise that hard work and determination pays off. That some people will have used his story as motivation to fight their own medical battles more vigorously is undeniably a good result- but what of future sufferers? ‘Did you hear about the guy that beat cancer and became one of the greatest sportsmen of all time?’ ‘Yeah, he was lying about a lot of it and it turns out he wasn’t a saintly philanthropist, he was actually a total a**hole’

    The Livestrong Foundation is forever tarnished by this, thier fundrasing will suffer- as will the fundraising of any clean athlete who wants to set up a charitable foundation and bring on-board the backing of a big company. The longer term effects of Armstrong’s actions may be an abiding sense of cynicism and suspicion towards this kind of charity hook-up. How can we be sure that the whole Livestrong venture was nothing more than a part of the plan to paint himself as the good guy?

    • Thanks for your great comment Harry. You’re absolutely right in that one of the fundamental flaws in act Utilitarianism is in calculating consequences. Despite this, according to Utilitarians, even if Armstrong only created his charity to look good (not because he had any interest in the wellbeing or suffering of others), then if it can be judged that the charity produced more good than bad, his motives are irrelevant in judging him.

  3. I think your synopsis of the Armstrong situation is spot on – his so called confession to the queen of daytime television, after years of fervid denial on the use of drugs served only one purpose – his attempt to regain control of a situation that he lost control of.

    Exceptional cyclist? No doubt. Repentent? No way. As much as the public, particularly the American public would like to disbelieve, he’s still playing us.

    But why should we think he should be apologetic ? This is not like a celebrity or politician publicly apologizing for a wee bit of bad behaviour.

    If we are to believe the USADA, Armsrong’s orchestration of perhaps the most sophisticated doping program in sport makes him akin to a crime boss. And when is the last time a convicted crime boss publicly apologized for the evil deeds inflicted upon his or her victims ? Empathy is one of those virtues that just gets in the way of business decisions.

    Which brings me to his involvement to the Livestrong Foundation. Pablo Escobar, infamous Columbian crime boss was noted to have built schools, hospitals and churches throughout Columba with the proceeds of drug money. What provoked such as sense of altruism ? Simply, by taking control of public option, it served to protect Escobar from prosecution.

    History may soon prove Armstrongs motivation was similar.

  4. Emily, I’m not sure it is certain that the charity produced more good than bad…or at least not all the good that was claimed. There was a very good piece in Outside magazine a year or so ago claiming that only a very small fraction of the money donated to Livestrong actually went to cancer research.

    • Thanks Pam, I did assume that not all the money went to research per se but I also assumed that the rest of it went on assistance, care, respite, etc. for cancer suffers and their families. But perhaps I’m wrong on that. What did the article suggest the money was spent on?

  5. Many really successful fraudsters create a larger than life persona which helps make them hard to question/challange until the whole edifice comes down. Jimmy Savilles charity work helped to protect him as it did with did Lance. Achilleas Kallakis (property fraud) made himself appear to be immensely rich to the extent that the banks didn’t do their usual checks – they didn’t question him.

    I’m not saying that Lance wasn’t committed to his charity (i’m sure he was) but it also served a useful purpose for him.

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