5 Lessons to Learn From Lance Armstrong’s Doping Scandal

Lance Armstrong Confession on OWN

(Image: ABC News)

In January 2013, Lance Armstrong, a former professional road racing cyclist and winner of seven consecutive Tour de France titles, admitted to the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) throughout most of his cycling career in a sit-down interview with Oprah Winfrey.

  • Oprah: So let’s start with the questions that people around the world have been waiting for you to answer. And for now, I would like just a yes or a no.
  • Armstrong: Okay.
  • Oprah: Did you ever take any banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?
  • Armstrong: Yes.
  • Oprah: Was one of those banned substances, EPO?
  • Armstrong: Yes.
  • Oprah: Did you ever blood dope or use blood transfusions to enhance your cycling performance?
  • Armstrong: Yes.
  • Oprah: Did you ever use any other banned substances like testosterone, cortisone, or human-growth hormone?
  • Armstrong: Yes.
  • Oprah: In all seven of your Tour de France victories, did you ever take banned substances or blood dope?
  • Armstrong: Yes.

From Mythic Figure to Disgraced Cheater

If you don’t know Lance Armstrong, he was a seven-time Tour de France winner, cancer survivor, and founder of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a nonprofit organization to support cancer survivors. I had previously featured his Nike commercial on the blog, where he announced his cancer diagnosis in 1996 (which he would recover from a year later).

In 2012, after a United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation concluded that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs over the course of his career,[1] he was stripped of all his seven Tour de France titles and banned from professional cycling. All his sponsors dropped him in a day, amounting to a $75 million loss.[2] His foundation was renamed Livestrong Foundation as he resigned as its chairman. And just like that, Armstrong fell from being a mythical figure in sports and cycling, to a disgraced cheater, bully, and liar.

Lessons We Can Learn

This post isn’t to debate about the right/wrong behind his doping. There is definitely no question that Armstrong was wrong for using PEDs and unfairly winning Tour de France with these drugs. He also betrayed the trust of fans, friends, family members, and business partners by doping and vehemently concealing it throughout his entire career.

Rather, this post is to examine Armstrong’s journey and to identify the lessons we can learn as human beings, so as to avoid making the same mistakes. Here are five life lessons I have learned from this saga.

1. Have a set of values to guide you, so that you never lose your way

  • Armstrong: When I was diagnosed, I was a better human being after that. […] And then I lost my way.
  • Oprah: You lost your way.
  • Armstrong: […] it’s easier to say I feel different, I feel smarter, I feel like a better man today. But I can’t lose my way again. And only I can control that. I’m in no position to make promises; I’m going to slip up every now and then. But that’s the biggest challenge for the rest of my life—is to not slip up again. And to not lose sight of what I got to do.

Lance Armstrong spoke of the various atrocities he committed over the 16 years (1996-2012) to protect his mythic image of being that man who overcame all odds to beat cancer. He used PEDs, cheated through his bike races, lied about it (including under oath in a 2005 SCA deposition, meaning he committed perjury), bullied people who tried to come clean, and betrayed the trust of people who believed in him.

  • Oprah: Were you a bully?
  • Armstrong*stumped look, followed by an awkward laugh, before finally acceding with a nod* … Yeah, yeah. I was a bully.
  • Oprah: So, what made you a bully?
  • Armstrong: I think just… again, just trying to perpetuate the story. And hide the truth.

In fact, Armstrong was so much the bully that he insulted his former teammates and friends (such as Emma O’Reilly and Betsy Andreu) with words like “whore,” “crazy,” “bitch,” and “alcoholic prostitute,” sued the people who threatened his story, and even issued death threats at them. The head of the USADA revealed death threats which he received from Armstrong himself during his 2012 Armstrong investigation.

Lies Armstrong Made To Cover Up His Tracks

Armstrong was so convincing in his lies that many people, including his very own children, believed in him, even when unfavorable evidence from U.S. federal and USADA investigations began to mount and former teammates and friends began to speak out against him.

Click to watch a video of the times throughout his career where he denied (vehemently) ever using drugs.

I remember following Lance Armstrong on twitter before and seeing tweets where he staunchly spoke out against the people accusing him of doping. He called the prosecution a “witch hunt,” and that he had been tested no less than 500 times in his entire career and had never once been tested positive. He blasted the people who accused him of doping and retweeted the tweets of his many fans who advocated their belief that he did not dope.

I never took a stance as I was neutral to Lance Armstrong, but he seemed so convicted of his innocence then that I found it hard to believe that he was lying. Looking back, it’s kinda sad to know that he was lying through his teeth the whole time.

Never Thinking His Behavior Was Wrong

The funny thing was that he revealed in the Oprah interview that he did not feel his behavior (doping, lying, bullying, etc.) was bad, wrong, nor dishonest at that time.

  • Armstrong: This story was so perfect for so long. […] You overcome the disease, you win the Tour de France seven times, you have a happy marriage, you have children… I mean it’s just this mythic, perfect story. And it wasn’t true.
  • Oprah: Was it a big deal to you? Did it feel wrong?
  • Armstrong: At the time?
  • Oprah: Uh-huh.
  • Armstrong: No.
  • Oprah: It did not even feel wrong?
  • Armstrong: No. Scary.
  • Oprah: Did you feel bad about it?
  • Armstrong: No. Even scarier.
  • Oprah: Did you feel, in anyway, that you were cheating?
  • Armstrong: No. The scariest.

Fierce Desire to Win that’s Not Guided by Values

Armstrong’s answer to his blind-sided behavior? A relentless desire to win at all costs. This drive would have been great if it had been governed by certain core values. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

  • Armstrong: Before my diagnosis, I would say I was a competitor, but I wasn’t a fierce competitor. And then in an odd way, that process (of being diagnosed) turned me into a person that… it was truly, win-at-all-costs. When I was diagnosed and I was treated, I said, ‘I would do anything I have to do to survive.’ And that’s good.

    And I took that attitude, that ruthless, and relentless, and win-at-all-costs attitude, and I took it right into cycling.”

Knowing Your Values

The lesson I see here is to have a core values system that guides you in life. Not just performance-driven values like excellence, diligence and persistence, but also values that are in line with the highest good of humanity and our highest self, like truth, integrity, and honesty.

It is clear from the way Armstrong conducted himself in those 16 years that he was missing values of truth, integrity, and honesty. Actually, longer than 16 years, as Armstrong had been doping even before he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996. This led him to lose his way and get caught up in this big mess.

Do you have a set of core values that guide you? If yes, what are they? My personal set of core values which have been guiding me since 2008 are Excellence, Passion, Courage, Truth, and Authenticity. Truth, to me, encompasses having integrity and being honest to others. These values, I live by them every single day, every single moment of my waking life. They guide my everyday thinking and decisions.

If you have yet to identify your core values, perhaps now is the best time to do so. I recommend identifying five core values. These five values will make up the five points of a star, where the star is you. Read more about values, my concept of the five core values, and how to identify them in Day 15: Identify Your Values in Live a Better Life in 30 Days.

2. If the culture isn’t what you want, create a different one

  • Oprah: So, you’ve been quoted as saying ‘We’ve one goal, one ambition, and that is to win the greatest bike race in the world, and not to win it once, but to keep on winning it. And to ‘keep on winning it’ means you have to keep on using banned substances to do it.
  • Armstrong: Yes. And I’m not sure if this is the acceptable answer, but that’s like saying, ‘We have to have air in our tires. We have to have water in our bottles.’ That (doping) was… that was, in my view, part of my job.

Part of Lance Armstrong’s justification for doping was that doping was part of the (professional cycling) culture (at that time; he says that the sport is now clean thanks to the biological passport) and that he simply had to dope if he wanted to win.

However, he later acknowledged that he could have done better. He could have tried to stop the culture but didn’t.

  • Oprah: You said it was not possible to win without doping.
  • Armstrong: Not in that generation. […] I didn’t invent the culture. But I didn’t try to stop the culture. And that’s my mistake. And that’s what I have to be sorry for.

If you are faced with a culture that violates your values, what would you do? Would you perpetuate that culture? Or would you change it?

Creating a Different Culture Through My Business

It might seem easy for me to say since I’m not in such a situation now, but my answer is this: I would definitely strive for my ideals and create a culture that is in line with them.

Yet, in a way I can argue that I do face such a situation at work. Running Personal Excellence in the online space, I often hear of people using spammy techniques to grow their presence.

Some purchase subscribers, Facebook “likes” and Twitter “followers” to create a larger-than-life image. Some purchase email addresses to grow their mailing lists, a questionable action since the owners of said addresses did not provide consent. Some use backlink-building software, “spin” articles (i.e. create duplicate articles with the same content), and create useless sites to build backlinks and improve their SEO (read: spam). Some hire people to write content, only to post them as their own.

To me, these represent a culture not in line with what I want. I’m not interested to contribute spam to the internet, only the best content that adds value to people’s lives. I’m not interested to obtain people’s email addresses in an unsolicited manner, even if it means my mailing list size is going to grow slower. I’m not interested to purchase fake “likes” and subscribers, because these will only be hollow numbers and will not mean anything to me. I’m not interested to have people ghost write material for me, since I can’t endorse what they produce.

Sure, not doing these actions might mean that I can’t grow PE as fast as I could. But so what? I don’t see how I add value to the world through these little gimmicks. I believe in the Golden Rule: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. I know I hate spam. I know I hate it when people send me unsolicited mail.

Since I don’t like the existing internet spam culture, I rather create a different culture. I rather grow my presence through legit means in line with my values of Truth and Excellence. To me, that’s more honorable than other methods. And one can argue that that’s probably why PE has such a strong following of real people with real voices today (i.e. all of you), rather than a soulless site that has no fan advocation. 

Read How To Say No To Others and learn how to say no to others.

3. Don’t lie, cheat, or do anything unethical. The truth will prevail.

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” — Mark Twain

“The story was getting out of control. Which was my worst nightmare.” — Lance Armstrong, on the public fallout after USADA’s charge and exposé of his doping

14 years of elaborate cover-ups, over 500 drug tests, and successful evasion of Tour de France’s doping controls to score seven victories—you would think Lance Armstrong would continue to stay unexposed if he was able to evade detection for so long.

He was able to escape the prosecution of even U.S. federals (something he claims not to be involved in). In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation of him, pursuing allegations such as fraud, drug trafficking, and witness tampering. In February 2012, after a two year investigation, federal prosecutors dropped the case without any explanation.

  • Oprah: When they dropped the case, did you think, ‘Now. Finally over. Done. Victory.’?
  • Armstrong: It’s hard to define victory. But I thought I was out of the woods.

However, in a twist of fate, in 2012 USADA launched their own investigation of Lance Armstrong and uncovered overwhelming evidence that he had doped throughout his professional career. In July that year, USADA charged Armstrong with possession, trafficking, and use of banned substances. He was then striped of his Tour de France titles, banned from elite competition, and nuked by his sponsors, all within the span of one and a half days.

The moral of the story? Don’t lie, cheat, or do anything unethical in the first place. No matter the circumstance, it does not justify bending the universal value of truth. Nobody likes to be lied to, and the fallout is never pleasant when the truth is revealed. For the trust that is lost, you have to work hard to earn it back. Even then, you may well never earn it back. 

Besides, when you lie, it’s already a given that you have make a new lie to cover the old lie. You are virtually signing yourself up for a lifetime of lies. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a very tedious way to live. Thanks, but no thanks.

As the Chinese saying goes, ??????, which literally translates to “You can’t wrap fire with paper”. What it means is that the truth (fire) can never be covered up for long, no matter what you do or how hard you try. Armstrong tried to cover his lies up for 16 years and eventually succumbed to a confession after the huge public fallout following the USADA report. Truth will indeed always prevail.

Related article: How To Deal With Dishonest People

4. As you call out the bad in people, don’t negate the good they have done

Armstrong wrote a book in 2001, titled: It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. It shares his story of triumph and transformation and his fight against cancer.

Given the scandal’s outbreak, detractors would probably joke about the title today and go, “Yeah it’s not about the bike. It has always been about the drugs.” There is also a gag going on Twitter now about an Australian library rebranding Armstrong’s book as “fiction” rather than “non-fiction,” which turned out to be just the librarian making a good-humored joke in light of Armstrong’s confession.

Still, doping fiasco aside, Armstrong does have a heart for cancer survivors, being a cancer survivor himself. It shows during the interview. (Whether he was faking the emotions is a separate discussion altogether.)

  • Oprah: What was the humbling moment that brought you face to face with yourself?
  • Armstrong: I believe it was a Wednesday. Nike called. And this isn’t the most humbling moment. I’m going to get to that.

    And they said, basically, cliff notes here: That they’re out. Okay. *shrugs* And then the calls started coming. Trek. Giro. Anheuser-Busch. Everything.

  • Oprah: On the same day? The same couple of days?
  • Armstrong: Yeah. Couple of days. Everybody out.

    Still not the most humbling moment. Not a fun period.

  • Oprah: But how did that hit you though?
  • Armstrong: You know, in a way, I just assumed we’d get to that point. The story was getting out of control. Which was my worst nightmare. I had this place in my mind that they would all leave.

    The one person I didn’t think would leave was the foundation. And that was the most humbling moment.

The Good that Lance Armstrong Has Done

In 1996, Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with stage 3 testicular cancer which had spread to his brain and lungs. Even though the doctor said he had a less than 40% survival chance, he beat the disease and was declared cancer-free in 1997.

In that same year, Armstrong founded Lance Armstrong Foundation (now Livestrong Foundation) which provides free support for anyone with cancer. The foundation has since raised nearly $500 million for cancer awareness.

During the interview, Oprah read an email her friend sent to her regarding Armstrong:

“I’ve heard that he is a real jerk.

But I will always root for Armstrong. He gave me hope in a very dire time. My first-born son had just been diagnosed with leukemia two weeks before his first birthday. And I’m in intensive care barely able to breathe, and my brother sends me Armstrong’s new book, ‘It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life‘.

I read it cover to cover, through the night. It showed me that there was hope for my son, to not only to live, but to thrive. I had a choice to make that night on how to respond to my son’s illness and teach him how to face the world.”

While this scandal showed that Armstrong was a complete fraud and bully, we should not negate his inspiring cancer survival story where he beat cancer when the odds were stacked against his favor.

We should not negate that his story (including the fake mythic part of it) has/had, in the past 15 years, inspired many around the world to step up, strive for their goals, and achieve their dreams, something they might not have done otherwise. 

We should also not negate that while Lance Armstrong could have continued lying straight to his death bed, he did not, and instead did this public confession, which has already triggered a huge public fallout, with people’s trust in him totally crushed and lawsuits starting to line up. He is facing at least three civil suits at the moment.

When you look at Armstrong and his doping scandal, and as you make your assessment about his character, remember the good he has accomplished, be it directly or indirectly, and not throw out the baby with the bath water. The bad that he has committed should not negate the good in him and the good he has done.

5. It’s never too late for redemption

“I made my decisions. They are my mistake. And I’m sitting here today to acknowledge that and to say that I’m sorry for that.” — Lance Armstrong, during his interview with Oprah Winfrey

 To be honest, I’m not too sure if Armstrong was 100% honest during the interview. He claimed that he did not dope during the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France, though the USADA report provided evidence that he did.

If he was indeed lying, it was probably to protect himself criminally, as there is a five-year time span for statute of limitations. If his last doping was 2005, federal authorities would not be able to charge him since it’s more than five years ago. However, if his last doping was 2009, there is a case for them to open a criminal investigation against Armstrong.

But let’s say Armstrong did not lie during the interview and he was completely truthful. While it’s a confession that comes 16 years late, it’s better late than never. 

  • Oprah: Are you facing your demons?
  • Armstrong: Absolutely. Absolutely. Ya. It’s a process. And I think we’re beginning to process that now.

My Redemption

I remember after I quit my job to start my path in personal development in late 2008, I began this “outreach” program where I reconnected with people whom I had conflicts or misunderstandings with before (small ones really; I have never had major conflicts with people before). I also looked into my past grievances and released them one by one.

(Check out Day 24: Right a Past Wrong and Day 25: Forgive Someone of Be a Better Me in 30 Days on how to get started on these yourself.)

Why did I do that? To be honest, it’s not like I had much drama in my life; I’ve never had major disagreements with people as I mentioned above.

However, I feel that I have to step up to the plate if I am to embark on this personal development path—growing and helping others to grow—full time. Past conflicts, misunderstandings, personal grievances, etc.—these are things I have to resolve if I want to be a role model to others. I have to walk the talk, and to do that, I have to first redress issues from my past.

And that I did. And that began my journey of self-healing, which then helped me to better help others grow.

First Step for Armstrong in His Path of Redemption

I’m happy for Armstrong that he made this confession. Armstrong’s former friend, Betsy Andreu, has confirmed that Armstrong is “someone who doesn’t know how to tell the truth and how to say I’m sorry”. Even if he didn’t tell Winfrey the whole truth, or even if he came across as unremorseful in parts of the interview, the point is, this is a first step. 

“…I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people. For the rest of my life.” — Lance Armstrong

I always believe everyone, no matter how far gone, always deserves a second chance. It’s never too late for redemption. And I believe Armstrong’s path to redemption is just starting now, beginning with this confession on OWN.