Brennan: Spin cycle – Armstrong, doping and the lies he told

As a philosopher whose main area of research is ethics, and as a cyclist, I’m saddened, angered and intellectually puzzled by Lance Armstrong’s behaviour and recent confession.

Like many, I’ve followed his career closely. It’s a compelling saga, triathlete turned Tour de France champion seven times over, with a life-threatening battle with cancer along the way. In the past, I believed Armstrong when he said he was clean, when time after time he denied accusations of doping, and when he said he was the victim of overzealous investigating by cycling officials.



But what now that he’s confessed? How should we feel about Armstrong’s record including his use of banned performance enhancing drugs?

Let’s set my personal sense of betrayal aside and consider the ethics involved.

Clearly, Armstrong broke many rules and maybe even some laws, but was what he did morally wrong?

The answer seems to me to be obviously yes. If Armstrong had only been guilty of doping, that’s one thing, but instead, he confessed to a series of wrongdoings including leading a team where doping appears to have been the norm, covering up the doping, intimidating and threatening those who would expose him, all the while lying about his drug taking to the public, and appearing in commercials and TV interviews claiming to be clean.

Duke philosopher Wayne Norman, the Mike & Ruth Mackowski Professor of Ethics at Duke University, when asked by CNN whether Armstrong should get another chance, put it in a way I quite like. Norman compared Armstrong’s behaviour to a crime that starts out simply and then escalates:

“Like a convenience store robbery that goes wrong and leads to a hostage-taking and a high-speed chase, Lance’s doping is by far the least of his transgressions. A highly calculated confession about the doping still looks like Lance gambling to advance his interests. Former fans will need contrition and a sense that he genuinely regrets the gamble. Those he slandered and defrauded should demand even more.”

Armstrong is banned from professional cycling for life and he’s been stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles. Given his record, that outcome seems just and fair to me. But there’s another question we might wonder about. If he had just doped, how would that moral scenario be different?

There are hard questions about how we should be behave in contexts in which those around us are breaking the rules, benefitting and getting away with it. Morality can ask a lot of us, but in a context in which our wrongdoing arguably harms only ourselves and others are cheating, are we really obliged to follow the rules?

I think the answer is yes, but those in charge are also ethically required to make sure that this doesn’t happen. We have obligations to competitors to make sure the rules we set in place are obeyed.

I think about this often in the context of academic offences. I think my students are less likely to plagiarize when I can convince them those who do cheat will be caught and punished. If they think they’ll be evaluated in a context where others are getting away with plagiarism the moral cost of following the rules is much higher.

We need to make it possible for people to respect their self interest and do the right thing. My half of the bargain is enforcing the rules; their part of the bargain is following them.

The same is true in the world of professional sport. Thus, if Lance Armstrong had only been guilty of doping, he’d have done something wrong. In a context where it appears cheating was rampant, that wrongdoing might have been excusable and a return to bike racing might have been possible. But given his other behavior, clearly it’s not.

I thought about the ethics of doping last year when I was racing my bike in New Zealand. That is, I thought about it as an ethicist, as slow as I am, I never considered cheating.

In 2012, I was the Taylor Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Otago and while visiting New Zealand on research leave, I raced as part of Bike Otago’s Women on Wheels program. To get my racing license, I had to sign an anti-doping pledge which kind of amused me. I agreed to comply with the Anti-Doping Policies of BikeNZ, the UCI Anti-Doping Regulations and the World Anti-Doping Code. I had to accept that I could be subject to blood and urine tests at any time and that the samples would become the property of the regulatory agency and that they could be subject to ongoing testing.

I cut and pasted the text of my license agreement to Facebook and shared a chuckle with friends. After all, I’m a midlife, middle-of-the-pack, recreational racer. But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to laugh.

In July 2012 the New York Times reported on the rise of doping in the ranks of amateur cycling; Wider Testing Reveals Doping Among Amateur Cyclists, Too was the headline. In 2011, 10 amateur cyclists were found guilty of using banned substances, including EPO. Two of them were taking part in the Gran Fondo New York.

I’m doing the Gran Fondo Niagara Falls in September of this year and I’m hoping there’s no random blood tests – not because I’ll be doping, but because it might ruin an otherwise pleasant day.

What’s most frightening about doping in amateur sports is not just that it makes no sense — it’s not your career after all — but rather than amateur athletes don’t have team doctors and the intense medical scrutiny the pros undergo. The risks are great and the rewards rather small.

So three quick conclusions: It’s a just punishment that Lance Armstrong be stripped of all of his Tour de France titles and never be allowed to take part in bike racing again. The questions are more complicated, if he’d only been guilty of using performance enhancing drugs in a context in which it certainly appears rule breaking was rampant. And it’s time to level the playing field at all levels of cycling.

Philosophy professor Samantha Brennan is a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy and an associate member of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research. With her colleague Tracy Isaacs, she blogs at Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty,