Unlearning What Lance Armstrong Taught Us

The fairytale of a cancer survivor conquering the world charmed (rather, fooled) us all. That he had nothing noteworthy during his pre-cancer years should have made us wary

Published: Oct 18, 2012 06:54:07 AM IST
Updated: Jan 23, 2013 01:58:57 PM IST
Unlearning What Lance Armstrong Taught Us
Image: Alberto Muschette / Reuters

For more than a decade and until recently, I was a die-hard fan of cyclist Lance Armstrong. A couple of days ago, I went through the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) entire report which indicted him of doping and pushing his teammates to dope as well, for over eight years. And now, I no longer wish to be a foolish supporter or a romantic!

I have to admit that his extraordinary and sometimes magical achievements had blinded me. It prevented me from asking: How could there be God amongst humans? The Lance Armstrong phenomenon was much like Salomon Brothers and Enron, which were apparent ‘miracles’ and I’d believed them all too unquestioningly, until secrets tumbled out of the closet.

These are stories that management consultants bandy prematurely and make us believe that much before a cycle is over, the verdict is out. Yet, we hanker after these reports and gobble them up. I don’t doubt the fact that sometimes, people do end up doing something which is trend-defying.

But when someone like Armstrong achieved such staggering numbers in Tour de France, we should’ve been sceptical, especially when the murmurs had begun. The fairytale of a cancer survivor conquering the world charmed (rather, fooled) us all. That he had nothing noteworthy during his pre-cancer years should have made us wary. We prayed and wished for our own death-defying experience through a ‘surrogate’ Armstrong.  

He told his US Postal Service (USPS) team, “We should win the world's toughest tour not once but keep winning it over and over again.” The winning obsession: This is where it all goes terribly wrong! Even Bradman got out for a duck; Federer loses rather tamely these days; Tiger Woods is struggling to find his magic back; Michael Schumacher got beaten at his best and the great Muhammad Ali lost to Norman and Fraser. Behind all fairytales, there lies an unrevealed truth.

The problem is trying to be God, like Armstrong did with his "winning forever" formula. Even Gods lose once in a while.

The 200-page USADA report is gut-wrenching: Not only did Armstrong dope, but also bullied, threatened and blackmailed his teammates to dope with him and not get tested. Tour De France and cycling as a sport is littered with cases of doping: Jan Ullrich to Alberto Contodor have been banned. But Armstrong invariably escaped being caught and thus prevented himself from being banned. What is queasy to note is, he contracted cancer due to the use of EPO (Erythropoietin – a performance-enhancing drug) and cortisones, but persisted with his obsession: Doping for winning.

The issue here is not about Armstrong alone. It is about what makes perfectly rational and intelligent people like us believe in fairytales to the extent of pushing ourselves to emulate them. Is it our delusion of God or merely a fame-fixation? Are we so desperate that we’re ready to cheat for winning?  Dan Ariely's famously noted, “When I can get everybody to cheat then it is kosher.” Hence, the moot question is: Performance at what cost and by what means is acceptable?

This leads us to another important insight: When performance becomes an obsession from being just an aspiration and is sought without capability, or the humanly impossible is attempted out of vaulting ambition, or someone’s winning ways are misunderstood and blindly adopted, or teams are driven to win without ensuring any knowhow, or self-obsession and a hunger for fame is mistaken as aspiration, we end up in a shameful state in the future.

Armstrong is an excellent case study on what happens when humans overreach themselves and lose perspective. For him, like many of us, staying ahead of the peloton, even if it was only by means of dope, became an unhealthy obsession. We saw the foreground that was visible, and were bowled over by his supposed passion; while the background had much more to show us. Here was ‘Lance the God’ who we all wished to be. In his triumphs, we celebrated the victory of the human spirit over the fallible body.

The testimonies of his teammates Hincapie, Leipheimer, Landis, Andreu, and 16 others contained in the USADA report tell us what Lance inflicted on them: They were blinded by Armstrong and surrendered as victims. They were mere mortals offering their services to God. But these mortal teammates and their families never featured on cover pages of newspapers and magazines worldwide; they fed on crumbs (obtained from stage wins) for serving the master, only to be bullied and eventually left to rot.

My hero Lance Armstrog has crumbled into a pile of dust. And I ask: Does winning as an obsession make losing so fearful that we’re prepared to embrace dishonour on a later date?

 (The author is Executive Director on the board of ICICI Bank. He is responsible for HR, Customer Service and Operations)

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  • Arthur Renee

    This is a good article, PRE-Confession. It shows how some people are blinded by hero worship, especially in the comments section. Let it be good medicine for those who follow the same path,

    on Jan 16, 2013
  • K.ramkumar

    Dear Mr. Srinvasan and Anirudh, Thanks for your posts. I am not judging Lance Armstrong at all. I am merely calling to attention our tendancy to not critically question too good to be true kind of achievements by anyone - Corporates, Business leaders, Politicians, Sports person etc. If you see my posts I have qualified my article by stating that it is neither useful to hero worship or villianise Lance. What is of value to us is what will I do if I find myself in a similar position. Will I choose to be part of a murky set up like TdF and dope to win, since that is possibly the only way to win or will I elect to choose some other cleaner option to pursue my quest for excellence. We are unduly harsh on politicians. There may be more from this tribe who are brazenly corrupt and even venal, but there are equally greedy people who preside over some of our other social and Business institutions. The God cannot be wrong or even if he is wrong he has a reason for the same which is beyond human comprehension, kind of blindness is what foces us to condone the unfair, unjust or corrupt acts of god like personalities. These are the 2 central themes of my article. Ofcourse I am also questioning the winning obsession which makes otherwise perfectly honourable people to get sucked into questionable means. Any amount of charity or social do good stuff will not wash brazen acts of cheating. Very often these are acts of atonements or smoke screens which cheaters create. In conclusion this is not about Lance, it is about our choices and decisions when on the knife edge.

    on Oct 31, 2012
  • Anirudh Gargi

    He might be wrong. Still too harsh article. I guess if we all write like this on every politician everywhere and every time we can see the difference.

    on Oct 30, 2012
  • S. Srinivasan

    Thanks for handling this very important topic and drawing key lessons for all of us who are not in sports but facing very similar pressures in our day-to-day career choices. Lance Armstrong is just the latest example of a very crowded Rogues' Gallery of people who were once celebrated as high performers and life models for all of us only to be exposed as cheats later. The financial world is full of such casualties -- from Nick Leeson to Rajat Gupta. On the one hand, you will always have people with less than perfect ethics, but on the other, you have good people gone bad. What pushes those normal people to adopt fraudulent methods to be on top? That's the issue we must all grapple with. Dan Ariely has made another valid point in his various research reports: That destruction happens not because of one big fraud cheating big time, but because of several small cheats -- read the non-criminal common people like us -- cheating one small measure at a time. It could be as 'innocent' as rounding off an expense claim on the higher side or overselling a product by promising the client what it can't deliver. But cheating it is indeed. So, there is this tendency among people to focus on big crimes like Lance Armstrong's and say 'oh, this is the end of Kaliyuga. How bad some people are' and go back to their little-cheating ways. Because their own frauds are small -- and below the danger line that sends out ethical alerts in their own minds -- they have made peace with such immoral action. Now, why people cheat in corporate careers? There may be several factors, but I think I know one of them: the pressure from managements to 'perform or perish.' What many of us proudly think of 'high-performance culture' in corporates is nothing but a cynical assembly line of overworked, exhausted and over-prodded individuals. Our companies are mental sweat shops, if you know what I mean. They push you intellectually as hard as bonded labourers are pushed physically. 12-hour workdays, unreasonable year-end targets, pitting colleagues as competitors through a zero-sum performance appraisal system and glorifying an out-of-proportion attention to office work (at the cost of family life) with employee-of-the-month awards and such. All this adds up to a single message for the young and ambitious. That you run on this very fast treadmill to stay still or you will be thrown behind in the career race. The premium is not on finesse, not on doing an honest day's job, but going beyond what was achieved last year ignoring everything else. In my mind, women are affected more by this than even men. Because of the skewed way in which our society is organised, while men can get away being high performers in one place (work), there is more pressure on women to be high performers in two places: work and family. An increasing number of women are not able to handle both pressures (and men are not helping) and they are making an either-or choice. Many women are deciding not to get married to pursue a career. Other women become stay-at-home moms, giving up the chance to realize their potential. The fact that the society is forcing them to make such a choice (despite the beauty pageant ads that say women can have it all) is another facet of this performance-driven corporate culture that has led people to cheat their way to the top. It is this corporate culture that pervades our society everywhere including in sports.

    on Oct 23, 2012
  • Amitabh

    Lance Armstrong\'s indictment was a personal setback as I thought of him as the ultimate example of what human beings can achieve. Actually it was Armstrong who got me interested in cycling and watching Tour de France. To me this has been very similar to what we are seeing with Indian politicians or some senior corporate professionals; i.e. 1. Fear of never getting caught 2. Feeling that even if caught - nothing will happen as I am a \"performer\" and system will protect me I believe that each individual has an inherent sense of right and wrong but the mindset built around the above mentioned beliefs makes the person indulge in unethical practices. And somewhere the failure of the system to punish the guilty or make a God out of ordinary mortals perhaps makes one believe that I can get away with anything. In the Armstrong context, I would think the doctors, book publishers, sponsors, media ... have contributed to reinforcing the belief in him as being infallible.

    on Oct 18, 2012
  • K.Ramkumar

    Dear friends, The issue here is not whetheter Lance Armstrong is a good man or not. He had chosen to live his life in a particular manner and has paid the price for it. He is neither a hero nor a villain. His bad will not erase his good even if it was atonement. Don't we rever Rama as a god despite his killing of Vaali in a dubious manner? The story of Lance is one to read and learn. To introspect on the choices we make. The choices business leaders make and rationalise what is ethical and what is not? It is about all of asking am I also a Hincape or Leipiemer who willingly agreed to dope and now indict Lance but glowed in his presence. Do many of us or some of of the CEOs take winning to extreme extent and are blind to the dubious means it forces them to adopt to keep winning and staying on the dover page? Why did the admin of TdF who I am sure knew what was happening with Lance and other teams and yet plays ignorant and innocent. This what global regulators did between 2000 and 2008 in the financial services industry. So the prudent and useful approach will be to focus on us and those with whom we work and examine whether we are already in the Lance trap or whether we are unwittingly getting into it. Did Lance peddle hard and pushed himself on the Alps and Pyrenees doping not withstanding and spill his guts out every TdF? Obviously yes. Is it possible his fellow competitors were also dope assisted? May be yes. But if we find ourselves in a similar situation what will we do is the question to reflect? No need to rush with a yes or a no or do moral grandstanding. We all have a part of Lance - the good and the bad - in us. It will help us if we get in touch with it. A strong dose of Skepticism is the only antidote against hero worship or villain bashing.

    on Oct 18, 2012
    • Yazin

      Great read sir

      on Oct 19, 2012
  • Yazin Azad

    Lance Armstrong has raised 470 million dollars for cancer research. Who cares that he may have cheated in a bicycle race?

    on Oct 18, 2012