Superfrauds: Are We Really Entitled to Care When Athletes Cheat?

By Michael Baker

It’s now been confirmed that Lance Armstrong has admitted to doping.  In an interview with Oprah (who else?) that will air on Thursday, Armstrong comes clean once and for all, thus cementing his place in the history of cheating.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  This time last year, Lance Armstrong was an All-American Golden Boy.  He was the squeakiest of the squeaky clean, a guy who parents would hold up as an example for their kids.  Not only was Armstrong an Olympian and Tour de France Champion, and the international face of the professional cycling, but he did it all after beating cancer.  He went so far as chastising those who insisted that no one could seriously compete in professional cycling without using performance enhancing drugs, and suing a British newspaper that raised allegations that he had doped.  It turns out that Lance Armstrong is the Cheating Champion of the World.  And he’s not just a cheater, but also a bald-faced liar.

So now we all know the truth – Armstrong is not superhuman.  Like Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, and the rest of baseball’s cheater’s club, he’s just a juiced-up dope fiend.  In hind sight, it’s not so shocking.  We all probably should’ve known better than to think that an ordinary man could accomplish unbelievable feats through purely natural means, no matter how talented and hard working he may be.  That takes the magic out of sports, but those guys never asked us to peek behind the curtain.  When you demand the truth about your heroes you’re asking to be disappointed.

Lots of people are understandably upset to see an American hero revealed as being, basically, just like the rest of us.  Maybe not everyone would cheat to win or lie to get rich, but some people would.  In fact, lots of people would, and until you’re actually confronted with the opportunity to do so at the professional level it’s hard to know how you might react.  That doesn’t make what Armstrong did commendable or even forgivable, but it puts his actions in a realistic perspective.

And let’s not forget the good that Armstrong has done in the real world – the world where being able to ride a bicycle super fast has little practical value (I guarantee my 2005 Nissan Altima could beat Armstrong in a race, and my car isn’t even on steroids).

Through his charity work, Lance Armstrong has raised nearly $50 million for cancer research.  He’s also raised awareness about the disease, and brought hope and inspiration to countless people.  If it weren’t for Lance Armstrong, the sport of professional cycling would be virtually ignored in the United States (you know, more so).  And let’s not forget that through his endorsement deals, he’s been a boon to the economy.  (There’s some talk that Armstrong should have to return some of his endorsement money, which completely ignores the risk that a sponsor takes when it pays for a celebrity endorsement).

So Lance Armstrong cheated and lied.  That’s the wrong thing to do, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he did it for purely selfish reasons.  But a lot of good, honest people benefited from Armstrong’s lies.  That doesn’t excuse his actions, but it raises interesting questions about how the rest of us are entitled to react.  Can we condemn Lance Armstrong?  Sure.  Can we demand that our athletes compete on an even playing field?  Absolutely.  But in doing so we’ll have to accept that there is no Superman.