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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.

– by Matt Collette

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