Last night, Lance Armstrong’s fans and foes finally heard it from the horse’s mouth. “I doped,” the seven-time Tour de France winner told Oprah, “and I’m sorry.”
It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for a guy who used performance-enhancing drugs for much of his career, developed an elaborate scheme to avoid being caught, and bullied anyone who accused him of doping. There’s no denying it—Lance is a liar and a cheat.
But before we get too self-righteous, I think it bears examining why Lance felt compelled to dope in the first place. I have no doubt that Lance was—and probably still is—an addict. But he wasn’t addicted to the EPOs, the corticosteroids, or any of the other drugs he’s accused of using. The high Lance relentlessly chased was the thrill of the win. And his addiction to winning at all costs is something far too many of us can relate to.
We live in a success- and consumer-obsessed culture in which the ends justify the means. Our society bombards us with things we believe we need to be happy—whether it’s a new car, designer jeans, a prestigious university degree, or a high-paying job. All too often, the goal becomes paramount and we lose sight of the consequences of our actions. I think of the alarming rates of students who abuse ADHD medications to study harder and get better grades. And it’s not just kids who are willing to put everything on the line to succeed. Adults, too, steal, cheat, and engage in criminal activities to achieve their goals. I’m not trying to suggest that crooks like Lance Armstrong are victims, but his story is an extreme example of the internal and external pressures so many of us face.
Lance’s fall from grace also teaches us that no matter how clever the ruse, cheaters are usually found out in the end. The cyclist used every trick in the book—from staying in a remote hotel to avoid drug testers, to recruiting a cadre of enablers. However, the mounting evidence against him—including witness testimony, financial records, and lab results—finally became impossible to ignore. His fate should serve as a lesson to all success addicts. If you let your drive to win overpower your integrity, you may be stripped of everything you once valued.
Lance now has the opportunity to become a powerful advocate for change. For all his faults, he has been a tremendous leader in the fight against cancer. He’s not a despicable person and I’d love to see him channel his positive energy into a new cause. He could, for example, choose to help clean up cycling. Although he was the most high-profile cyclist who doped, we know he wasn’t the only one. Given his celebrity, he could become an important voice in the movement to end corruption within the sport.
He can’t back-peddle and undo the deception of the past fifteen-plus years. But from here on out, he can be mercilessly honest—and focus on instilling that honestly in others. His next achievement may not earn him a trophy, but it may be the first time we can truly call him a winner.
By Howard Meitiner
President and CEO, Phoenix House