Lance, lying and doping.

I have little new to say about this sad saga that I haven’t said already. Having now read much more about it, there is one thing that’s worth adding. But the substance of my position stays the same. So I repeat the question I asked when the story broke back in August:

Why is it that if an athlete wins trophies and sets records through a mixture of natural genetic advantages, committed training, a carefully managed diet and an eye for the optimal environment, we are automatically in awe and shower such people in praise; but once we learn the one extra detail that their achievements were probably also aided by the injection of chemicals, on top of their natural inducement and consumption through food, especially when this is evidently epidemic in the industry anyway – why do those stars turn into villains whose achievements are immediately void?

More of my thoughts on why we should ditch the idea that drug-taking undermines sporting achievements here. I won’t be recycling those arguments again.

But I was struck by this part of his exchange with Oprah:

Winfrey then asked, “Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?”

He said no, “that’s the scariest,” and went on to explain that he had even looked up the word “cheat” in the dictionary once to find out the exact meaning. He found it to be “gaining an advantage on a rival or foe” and convinced himself that he was not cheating because he considered cycling to be a level playing field then, with all the top riders using drugs.

And this:

He said that he took EPO, but “not a lot,” and that he had rationalized his use of testosterone because one of his testicles had been removed during his battle against cancer. “I thought, Surely I’m running low,” he said of the banned testosterone he took to gain an edge in his performance.

To those that continue to vilify the man, what do you say to this? How was his drug-taking tantamount to cheating if all of his competitors had de facto access to the same drugs? And why do you object to his use of testosterone when he evidently did suffer from a natural deficiency on this front? I thought your big idea in sport was that victory shouldn’t be determined by arbitrary factors. What’s more arbitrary than a man’s chances being jeopardised by the fact he had testicular cancer? [See update]

Amy Davidson asks why Armstrong “look[ed] up the definition [of cheat], rather than looking inward?” Well, clearly he did engage in introspection too, hence the talk above of how he (quite rightly, in my view) rationalised his drug taking in terms of everyone else having access, and him having a special hormonal disadvantage down to brute bad luck. [Ditto]

So he should have a clear conscience about the doping itself. The immorality lies instead, surely, in the insanely rich web of deception he spun in order to keep the truth secret. As he said to Oprah:

People who believed in me and believed me have every right to feel betrayed… I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people.

This should be the crux of our repulsion here. Not the doping, but the lying. We should regret that sporting law is so structured that something that should be perfectly legal is a total taboo, and so in doing something he should have the right to, he could only succeed by living a lie for over a decade. The psychological impact of sustaining that sort of deep deception is a tragedy not to be underestimated. And nor should we doubt the callousness Armstrong showed by causing such awful consequences for all the people he branded liars, when he was the greatest liar of the lot. That is plausibly unforgivable. The impact of such staggering dishonesty on social trust will be colossal.

But that is all consistent with the claim that the drug war is an evil and futile failure. Ta-Nehisi nails it:

I’m not sure what I think about drugging when everyone else around you is drugging. I don’t think lying is a very good idea. I think trying to destroy people for telling the truth is a good deal worse. It’s that all-out war that really sets Armstrong apart. This isn’t just a “doping scandal.” It’s something much creepier.

Precisely. I’d be the first to agree with Kant that, in general:

By a lie a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man. A man who himself does not believe what he tells another … has even less worth than if he were a mere thing.

That’s putting it hyperbolically, but it captures our justified outrage at anyone willing to undermine our faith in the reliability of human assertion to such an extent. I defer to the genius of John Stuart Mill on why honesty is so important:

[I]t would often be expedient, for the purpose of getting over some momentary embarrassment, or attaining some object immediately useful to ourselves or others, to tell a lie. But inasmuch as the cultivation in ourselves of a sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity, is one of the most useful, and the enfeeblement of that feeling one of the most hurtful, things to which our conduct can be instrumental; and inasmuch as any, even unintentional, deviation from truth, does that much towards weakening the trustworthiness of human assertion, which is not only the principal support of all present social well-being, but the insufficiency of which does more than any one thing that can be named to keep back civilisation, virtue, everything on which human happiness on the largest scale depends; we feel that the violation, for a present advantage, of a rule of such transcendant expediency, is not expedient, and that he who, for the sake of a convenience to himself or to some other individual, does what depends on him to deprive mankind of the good, and inflict upon them the evil, involved in the greater or less reliance which they can place in each other’s word, acts the part of one of their worst enemies.

And Savulescu deserves the last word:

We should choose the policy which best promotes the values of health, spectator interest, enforceability, fair competition and human excellence. That is a policy of regulated access to performance enhancing drugs.

The zero tolerance ban on drugs in sport is an example of the spectacular victory of ideology, wishful thinking, moralism and naivity over ethics and common sense. Human beings have limitations. Lance Armstrong is no god, but he is also no devil.

We should change the rules, and take Armstrong off the bonfire. There will, after all, be more like him.

Draft of Savulescu’s paper on this topic here.

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One thought on “Lance, lying and doping.

  1. In my view the worst thing was the bullying and villification of anybody who broke ranks and threatened to expose Armstrong. You might say it was borne of the fear created b drug regulations, but he still behaved in a pretty shitty way to a lot of people.

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