Opinion: Armstrong case provides a window into our collective morality

Dr. Phil Skiba argues that responses to the Armstrong case highlight our worship of celebrity and a collective "win at all costs" mentality

“This is my body, and I can do whatever I want to it. […] What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?” — Lance Armstrong, from a 2001 Nike commercial

The above quote seems equally prophetic and disingenuous in light of recent events. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has revealed over 1000 pages of documentation in support of a single conclusion: Lance Armstrong achieved his near-superhuman results through a combination of performance-enhancing drugs and blood transfusions. He was the de facto ringleader of a breathtaking fraud. Despite this, I find myself answering a single question with alarming frequency: “Who cares?”

People who seek to minimize Armstrong’s transgressions often reference the doping present in other sports. They may point to Marion Jones or some similar story as evidence that doping is simply endemic to elite competition. Aside from the fact that it is ridiculous to excuse bad behavior by pointing to other bad behavior, there is an important difference in the present case. We find it somehow more offensive than what has come before. I’ve puzzled over that fact for some weeks now, and I believe I understand why that is. I will begin my explanation with another Armstrong quote:

“Finally, the last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.” — Lance Armstrong, 2005 Tour de France victory speech

Armstrong sold an intangible product coveted by all fair-minded people: the idea that clean living and a supreme work ethic are rewarded. He offered the belief that despite impossible odds, we can triumph over the insurmountable through the force of human will.

As a cancer survivor and as a physician, I wanted to believe in the Lance mythos more than anyone. I have used his example to help motivate my sickest patients for more than a decade. I am deeply disappointed at the way Armstrong provided false hope to desperate, vulnerable people, and then used them as his most ardent supporters. He sought veneration and financial gain in the hearts of people with catastrophic illness in the most craven way. This is the first reason you should care; Armstrong fed his own worst demons with our best angels.

The survivor community will recover from this blow. We will find hope in our families, in each other and in our doctors, as we should. Our society as a whole has something a bit more insidious to address, and this may represent a more important reason you should care. Armstrong has demonstrated that you can lie, cheat, bully, damage the personal and professional reputation of others, traffic in and use drugs, pressure others to traffic in and use drugs, and still come out a “winner” financially, professionally, and socially. He has reinforced the suspicion that has gone through the mind of anyone who has ever sat through an algebra test and noticed another kid using a crib sheet: Playing fair is for suckers.

You may believe that Armstrong’s sanction from USADA obviates this last point. You are wrong. Lance Armstrong Inc. is doing just fine. Nike, along with his other sponsors, have distanced themselves from him but are standing behind the LiveStrong brand. Celebrities continue to turn up at LiveStrong events. A bill has been proffered in Congress to defang the organization that caught him.

Rather than abiding by the reasoned decision of USADA, sporting events have given up the sanctioning of USA Triathlon so that Lance Armstrong was able to race. Allow that to sink in for a moment. Race organizations have actually turned their backs on anti-doping rules for the purposes of bringing the worst cheater in the history of sport to their events.

Simply put, the Armstrong case may be symbolic of a decline in our popular morality, which worships celebrity above fair play, hard work and decent behavior. It is also a window into how far the “win at all costs” mentality has contaminated our collective psyche.

Lance Armstrong has set, and continues to set, a very bad example, and in so doing works against what I do as a physician, teacher and professional sports consultant every single day. Unless we demand better, we risk continuing down a very cynical path. This is the final reason you should care. There will always be real heroes and false champions: it is for our collective good that we must elevate the former and demote the latter.

Dr. Skiba is the program director for Sport and Exercise Medicine at the University of Exeter, and is the incoming program director for Sports Medicine at Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, IL. Dr. Skiba has trained a number of elite endurance athletes, including two world champions.