Is Lance Armstrong really a bad guy?

Is Lance Armstrong really a bad guy?

“Lance Armstrong is a bad guy who has done some very good things.”

These are the words of a sports radio personality I listened to yesterday.  He was obviously commenting on the confession (to my pal Oprah) by Armstrong about his use of performance enhancing drugs.  The sportscaster, along with many I heard talk on the subject, were not as upset by the fact that Armstrong used the banned substances, or his lies on the subject, but the way he went after anyone who accused him of what turned out to be the truth.  Armstrong used his position of fame and power, along with his significant wealth, to attack the credibility of people in both the media and in the courtroom.  The phrase, “he destroyed people’s lives” has been used frequently when describing his reaction to accusations.

It’s a horrible thing he did, and shows an incredibly self-centered man who thought the world should bend to his whim.  It’s more proof to the adage: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But simply dismissing Lance as a cad or a horrible person would be far easier if not for the other side of his life.  In his public battle against cancer, he inspired many facing that disease to not give up their battle.  Even for those who eventually lost, the encouragement many got from Armstrong’s story was significant.  On top of that, the Livestrong foundation did much to raise money and awareness for cancer and for other significant health issues.  This foundation exists because of the heroic story of Lance’s successful battle to beat cancer, as well as his subsequent cycling victories.  Whatever the lies he told in the process, he did beat cancer and he did win the Tour de France multiple times.

So that leaves us with a puzzle: how do we regard him?  He is almost a caricature of contradiction, someone who did more good than most of us would hope to do in a lifetime, who accomplished amazing physical feats after beating death in a staring match.  Yet he is also someone who lied openly and coldly tore down the lives of people who opposed him.  It seems that the only consistent thing is that when he faced an obstacle, he was unwavering and relentless in beating the challenge it posed.  The same focus and determination that caused him to beat cancer, win the yellow jerseys, and make huge amounts of money for a worth cause, is what caused him to be able to lie without flinching and tear lives apart without showing much remorse.

He’s complicated.  But isn’t that true of everyone?  We have a desire to label people as “good” or “bad.”  We want our political side to be the moral one and the other to be immoral.  We want followers of our religious beliefs to be the righteous, and anyone else be a sinner.  Doing so shows a denial of what is blatantly obvious for anyone who looks: we are all, to some extent, Lance Armstrong.

I see this as a doctor, where people either assume I am a saint because of my job, or a self-centered money-grubbing scoundrel.  I see it when people talk of the “evil pharmaceutical companies,” or the “immoral insurance companies.”  I see it when people classify smokers, obese people, or medically noncompliant patients as “bad”, “stupid”, or “deficient.”  We want to put a single label on a person, either lifting them up to a standard we want to reach, or putting them down so that we can feel better about our own deficiencies.  We seem to all need heroes and villains in our lives, but I have yet to meet a person who didn’t qualify for both.  I certainly do.

Perhaps instead of glorifying or vilifying people, we should just focus on their actions.  I suspect the existence of Lance’s good deeds somehow gave him permission in his own mind to do the bad.  I suspect others will deny the goodness or the heroic nature of things he did because of how reprehensible he acted in lying and personal attacks.  I don’t defend him for this, but neither do I denounce him as a person.  We are all contradictions; Armstrong just took that to the extreme, and did it publicly.

This is a contradiction we see in everyone, and in life as a whole.  There is pain, but there is also beauty.  There is honor, but there is also shame.  There is death, but there is also birth.  You don’t get to choose.  Life gives both.  We all have both.

Nobody says this better than my favorite songwriter, Bruce Cockburn:

We go crying, we come laughing
Never understand the time we’re passing
Kill for money, die for love
Whatever was God thinking of?

Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That’s the burden of the angel/beast

Rob Lamberts is an internal medicine-pediatrics physician who blogs at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Suzi Q 38

    Yes, He’s a bad guy.
    He is both a liar and a thief.
    He’s lied to everyone in his life, including himself.
    He’s lied to us, the public.
    He is a thief, because with the titles he has erroneously won by cheating with the drugs, he has stolen from so many competitors. He stole the prize money and the fame.
    Now, supposedly the “prodigal son” has returned and asked for forgiveness.
    How about returning all of the titles, the medals, the prize and the endorsement monies?

    • SBornfeld

      You do know that all those testosterone-stoked young East German girls grew up to suffer sterility, liver tumors etc. I believe they eventually brought action against the swimming federation. Don’t know if any of the lowlives responsible have ever paid–but those athletes certainly did!

      • Suzi Q 38

        Thanks Doctor.
        I didn’t know that about the East Germans.
        In my youth, we swam in a race together in high school.
        She waited for me to finish.

    • f. lusu

      i actually went to school with shriley babashoff. she used the pool for hours everyday before her classes started. she seemed very serious and looked like she was able to block out the people around her. she was made fun of by the cool girls because of her short hair, but once she started winning in all the swim meets, they suddenly became fawning parasites. she should be very proud that she got her silver medal honestly.

      • Suzi Q 38

        “she should be very proud that she got her silver medal honestly.”
        Thanks for your post.
        Yes, I agree with you, even though I never knew her personally.
        I am sure we are not alone in our thoughts.

        I just remember a magazine publishing a story about her a few years back, and she was understandably bitter about how her glory was taken from her at the time….She knew they were cheating, and she didn’t win because of it. The olympic committee wouldn’t check into it, as obvious as it was (the East German women looked like men).
        Millions of dollars of endorsements.
        So many years of working out in the pool while other children got to play. You just saw her work out in the mornings…I am sure she also worked out in the afternoons / evenings with a local swim club.

        She came home to the U.S. in defeat instead of adulation. No Wheaties cereal endorsement etc.
        I admire her because she figured out how to live in spite of it all the disappointment of what was supposed to be her victory.

  • Jenna Smith

    I agree with Suzi Q: he is scum.

    So are the physicians who advised him and provided him with performance enhancing drugs. They’re even worse.

  • kjindal

    yes he absolutely IS a bad guy. So extremely narcissistic & arrogant. Jeez, did you even SEE the oprah interview? He STILL hasn’t stopped lying, even to himself.

    • Suzi Q 38

      No I haven’t. I will have to go on YOU Tube for that one.
      He has probably justified in his mind everything he has done.

  • Mick

    Kevin Please. He didnt ‘beat cancer’- he survived cancer! Some one that dies from cancer isnt ‘beaten’ by it. Cancer kills people – simple! Lance has fooled so many people- blurring the lines with his supposed cancer beating feats. You- as a Doctor should know the facts about cancer better than most. Pathetic to be honest

  • Mick

    referring to the song you quoted kevin. These days we realise being a pusher is more honorable than being a priest. More honest too

  • f. lusu

    what ‘other side of his life’? does he suddenly develop morals when he isn’t racing? does he just turn that on and off? it wasn’t just lance armstrong, it was the lance armstrong machine,and yes, it was that bad. it was the destruction of the careers of cyclists who worked so hard to be the best our country had to give. it was the fraud he perpetuated on the american tax payers,and lest we forget,on the cyclists from other countries. the worst part wasn’t just the corruption of the power he had, it was the way he used that power to create fear in his fellow team members who questioned the use of drugs.he had to improve the time trials of the other riders so he would be assured of a win.

  • Paul Dorio

    He repeatedly LIED to everyone and may go to jail for doing so, among other reasons. If THAT isn’t a message we should use to teach people to BE HONEST! …I don’t know what is. Attempts to excuse such behavior are an evil in themselves.

  • carolynthomas

    When an average everyday person survives a cancer diagnosis (or a heart attack, or a horrific accident) the traumatic event alone rarely elevates them to heroic status. As the Buddhists would say: what is, is.

    But when a celebrity like Armstrong does, suddenly he is anointed as a hero, full of goodness and larger-than-life nobility. Few survivors have the celebrity status or the money (thanks to all those years of sophisticated test-cheating technology) to start up their own foundations as he did, or to attract the kind of loyal defense that kept his fans blindly believing the calculated lies.

    Humans are complicated creatures, to be sure. But this one’s “reprehensible” acts of cruelty and deception are so glaringly ugly that your gentle acceptance of them seems puzzling. Did you actually watch your pal Oprah interview this guy? There was no remorse or even awareness of the incalculable damage he has done to his family, his teammates, his friends, and the reputation of the sport of cycling. His was the carefully media-coached reaction of a sociopath, one who actually smirked on camera when clarifying that yes indeed, he may have publicly called his friend a “bitch”, but he did NOT call her fat. So there! Good one, Lance!

    And by the way, he did not “win” any Tour de France titles, just for the record. He threw those away for good.

    • SBornfeld

      I presume you know that the International Cycling Union decided NOT to award those TDF titles to anyone else–as almost all the other top finishers in the Tours 1999-2005 are as well confirmed or suspected dopers.

      • Suzi Q 38

        Good, but it doesn’t make it right.

        • SBornfeld

          Of course not. I’ll get on my curmudgeonly soapbox to observe that what’s happened in cycling seems analogous to what’s happened in so much of our society.
          When I was a kid, some kids cheated on tests. Some kids ALWAYS cheated on tests–they were the “bad” kids, and “we” didn’t do “that” because we were “good kids”.
          Now, my teenage daughter sees EVERYONE around her cheating, and the thinking has changed from “do I want to do something that is wrong” to “am I going to be the only sucker that DOESN’T cheat”. Trust is so much harder to find, and people get away with what they think they can, whether it’s generals cheating on their wives, political candidates lying about their marathon times,
          I’m no apologist for Armstrong. In my mind what he did to his teammates, associates and anyone who didn’t fall into line was far worse than the doping itself. I think people will forgive George Hincapie (one of Armstrong’s lieutenants) for his doping. And they should. (for the record, I knew George, his brother and dad, and George was on my cycling club). It’s been decades since Jacques Anquetil (the first man to win the TdF five times) said “you don’t win the Tour on mineral water”. We’re disappointed, sure. But no one should be surprised.

          • Suzi Q 38


            As far as cheating on tests, maybe the idea is to let the teacher or officials know who is doing the cheating.

            This happened to a classmate of my son’s.

            There was a student that knew how to take the SAT.

            He knew how to get a perfect score. He would offer to boldly go to the exam facility and replace another struggling student. He asked the student what kind of score he needed, and the student said “1450 out of a 1600.” He went in and accidentally scored a 1600.

            When the SAT board saw the huge difference in scores, they doubted that the same person took the exam.
            They told the student what they thought would be an equitable solution: To come back in and retake the exam, or allow his first score (1250) stand as his final SAT score. Needless to say, he let it stand.
            These kids refuse to “rat” each other out. At least in this case, justice prevailed.
            For Lance Armstrong, he lied to everyone, plain and simple. I still don’t even think he is remorseful.

  • tjeptalley

    If Lance had been truly interested in comming clean,taking responsibility and admitting his abject failures, he would have done so on a reputable network rather than a feel good, social media comfort zone.

  • Mark Hilditch

    This thread of comments is a very poignant reminder of just how terribly difficult it is for many people to accept the fact that the diving line between good and evil runs right through the heart of every human being. None of us are ever as righteous as we wish we were and none of us are ever quick to acknowledge our self-absorption and rationalizations we are capable of carrying out. Jesus tried to teach us as much and look at how well his insights were regarded by his contemporaries.

    • Dr. Rob

      Yes, as the one who wrote this I am amazed that people just don’t get it. They don’t see that calling people “evil” or “scum” is lazy and full of bad consequences. This is not at all a defense of Lance. What he did was horrendous. Yet to simply point at him and call him “bad” ignores the way we all contradict ourselves. He is a super-sized contradiction, with his bad being bigger, but his goods outweighing that of most people as well.

      Please, readers, notice the fact that Lance probably justified bad actions by the fact that he was lionized as a “good” person for so long. Why do we need to identify a person as “good” or “bad?” Why sit on a judgment seat we never earned? Don’t forget the adage of how when we point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at us.

      • carolynthomas

        I think it goes beyond simply justifying his “bad” actions because of his “good” deeds. We “get” that, Dr. Rob.

        Celebrity (and wealth) are different animals, convincing those who enjoy them that they are beyond the rules and somehow entitled to do whatever they want, and then (of course) to get away with it. In Armstrong’s case (and I suspect this is what is really the last intolerable straw for so many of us), he then systematically attacked those who questioned him in his ruthless drive to destroy their lives. Then he stares coldly into Oprah’s camera lens and says yeah, okay, he’ll apologize to those he tried to destroy “when they’re ready to contact me”.

        You in fact are also judging him (exactly as the rest of us) except that in your judgement, the good he did “outweighs” his bad. We are merely disagreeing with your assessment of that balance.

        • Dr. Rob

          I do not think his good outweighs his bad. I think even saying good and bad weight is not appropriate when it comes to a person’s character. I say that my job is not to judge whether he is good or bad as a person, and I see that doing so causes lots of trouble. What is true to me is: he did some very good things, but also very bad things. He got the idea he was a good person because of the all the praise he got for the good things he did, although they were probably from flawed motivation (as my good deeds often are).

          Why should I care if good of another person outweighs the bad? Why does it matter to me? What if Lance starts doing really genuinely good things today? Do they count? What if a person doing good all their life starts doing evil things. Do they count? You see my point? It is not only impossible to judge a person’s goodness (or lack of it), it creates problems when we do. Calling a celebrity “good” because he does good is what makes them think they are above the law. Calling someone “bad” can give them license to continue doing bad because of it. Each day is new, and has new chances to do good or bad.

          Get over it. Why do we get so fixated on sitting in judgement?

          • carolynthomas

            I think it was the part where you wrote: “…his bad being bigger, but his goods outweighing that of most people as well” that I got the impression that you too were making judgements – as are we all.

          • f. lusu

            i bow before your righteous wisdom. you seem to be walking right down the middle of your own moral pathway; nether denouncing nor defending. real neat trick! you’re amazed when we don’t want to be gently guided towards enlightenment. you have your own religious beliefs going there,rob.,’to be the righteous and everyone else the sinner’. step away from your pulpit for a minute and look in ANY dictionary for the definition of the word evil. i think his ruthless ambition and cold calculation falls in there somewhere; it goes way beyond good or bad. i think many people wonder if you have any real indignation over what he has done towards others. do you think he has changed his way of thinking just because he got caught? you said he won the tour de france multiple times! wake up rob! investigators know he lied once again when he said he didn’t dope since 2005. his blood values in 2009 showed manipulation consistent with 2 transfusions, so you see,he didn’t WIN the tour de france multiple times,he cheated multiple times! your contention, that he is just a complicated lad who does both right and wrong, might be a tiny bit indulgent. you are deluding yourself. you sound just like the parent of a kid that got arrested for something.’my boy wouldn’t do that,he’s a good boy’.

      • Suzi Q 38

        What, You don’t “get” how I think of him or other people?
        Yes there is the good and bad in us all.
        What would you think about a doctor that passed through medical school and medical training by cheating? Is that good?
        Should that be excusable because he lived in a fine house and a drove an expensive car and took care of patients who considered him good after he cheated to get there?

        Should I forget the admissions of his past and forgive the fact that he treated me professionally and medically but really should not have been qualified to be my doctor?

        Forget the fact that many other men and women did not cheat on exams and are physicians of equal standing?

        My example is not even a public one.
        If you choose to do something like this in a very public rather than private way. don’t you expect some public “judgement” of sorts?

        You are not a minister, rabbi, or priest.
        Save it for Sunday mornings.

  • John Paul Spencer

    And Al Capone ran a soup kitchen during the Depression, so what’s your point?

    • Mick

      Are you talking to me? I said are you talking to me? oh wait that was taxi driver…hee hee hee hee

  • Trudy

    Maybe I am missing something here, but didn’t he most likely get testicular cancer BECAUSE of the hormonal drugs etc he was taking? There was a programme on Australian TV the other night where he apparently (and I believe it) bribed other athletes to let him win various races with large amounts of money involved. That is a whole new ball game. Perhaps the cancer foundation he started was to relieve his cognitive dissonance over his bad behaviour. Or a kind of “screen” so he could do what he liked in other areas. He strikes me as pretty much rotten in character. So many cyclists who did the right thing must feel that what they gave so much of their lives for was worthless in the end. Shouldn’t he go to prison like other people who defraud?

    • Suzi Q 38

      “There was a programme on Australian TV the other night where he apparently (and I believe it) bribed other athletes to let him win various races with large amounts of money involved. That is a whole new ball game.”

      I didn’t even know about this.
      He has quite a “web” of lies.
      It is amazing that there are some that are defending him and his behavior.

  • jonathanmilo

    I find it interesting how many commentators need to reaffirm that Lance is a bad guy. Like the article says, we tend to place others above or below us. Perhaps because so many of us did place him in a higher category, someone to aspire to be like, the vitriol we carry around his betrayal has a little more bite to it. No one likes to be played the fool, especially around our inspirations.
    The central question about his story for me is this: Can we see our own complexity in his choices?

  • Dr. Rob

    It is quite ironic that I have been so negatively judged for saying we shouldn’t be so judgmental.

    • Suzi Q 38

      No, Dr. Rob,
      This is not irony. This is reality. You put out a nice little controversial article that says: “Why are we judging Lance Armstrong?”
      We are telling you why, and how we feel.
      You are the one that is judging us for the way we feel about a public
      You and I are not likely to be judged, but on the other hand the reason being that we are not famous, and we have not stolen our
      career titles, wages, or even charitable giving by lying, cheating, and taking unprescribed drugs that may harm ourselves.

      We are having a nice and tidy “argument” of sorts.
      You have stated your position, then I have stated mine.
      We just don’t agree. Just because we don’t agree does not mean that you are negatively judging me for having an opinion about what Lance Armstrong did for years, by the way.

      He made this decision to live and lie his way to the top.
      He is a public figure. People will think one way or another about him.

  • Suzie Siegel

    Of course, people are capable of both good and bad behavior. Is anyone really arguing that point? Cockburn recognizes anger at people who commit bad acts. (Rocket Launcher)

    In addition to the bad stuff you mention … Armstrong should have come out publicly and in detail about the harms of EPO, especially after the FDA black-boxed the legal forms (Procrit, Aranesp, etc.) in 2007. But he probably wants to avoid liability since he forced others to take drugs that cause cancer or help it advance.

    Also, he will be seen as less “heroic” if people think he either caused his cancer or caused it to spread so rapidly. Even advanced testicular cancer is more curable than many other types, and many people have gone through much harsher treatment than he has.

    Yes, he inspired some people, but social workers, psychologists, etc., in the cancer world would hardly recommend the “livestrong” message. It suggests that we can cure ourselves through will power, and those of us who don’t have failed in some way.

    Nike and other companies partnered with Armstrong to sell merchandise, using their marketing power to make him into a hero. He donated about the same amount of his personal wealth to Livestrong as did Bernie Madoff to the lymphoma society, and both got rich through fraud. Meanwhile, he made millions in speaking fees and appearances as the Livestrong hero.

    Nonprofits compete for dollars. There are a ton of nonprofits that help cancer patients in various ways, and I volunteer for one of them. Would cancer patients have been better served if Armstrong had raised money for existing groups rather than spending donations to create a mega nonprofit in his name? Are people better served by a mega nonprofit or smaller nonprofits geared to specific needs?

    • Suzi Q 38

      ” He donated about the same amount of his personal wealth to Livestrong as did Bernie Madoff to the lymphoma society, and both got rich through fraud.”

      Good point, Suzie.

      He only donates a percentage of what is made through donations.
      How much does he charge these societies to use his name and picture?? He probably has hefty “cost of doing business” and administration fees to boot.

      • Suzie Siegel

        Plus, he defrauded the cancer patients who donated before they knew the truth about him.

  • Suzi Q 38

    I so agree with you.
    What a concept. Voluntarily “atone” for what he has done.
    Kind of like the “steps” that an alcoholic is asked to do to correct the wrongs that his alcoholism has brought on others.
    Why should he live in wealth that he “stole” by lying and cheating?
    I say he give everything back, start all over again without cheating.
    Make money the old fashioned way….getting up and going to work.

    He is not asking for our forgiveness. I am not even saying that he should be. If he wanted to forgive himself, I would think that returning the monies erroneously earned would be part of it.

    As for his medals? Donate them to a cycling museum, as a display of shame. How the world of cycling was so corrupt at the time that no one else would have been qualified to win, either. That the cycling officials could not pick anyone that was in second place and move them up to first place, because everyone else under him was doping, too.

    Prosecute all of the medical professionals and trainers that helped him cheat. Show a timeline of how it was done and how each person was punished.

  • Killroy71

    If he hadn’t done bad, he wouldn’t have had the platform to do good. Would he have done good anonymously, without recognition? I think not. Even today, that’s what his current performance is about – trying to get his platform back. That’s why he’s more bad than good, and yes, humans do need to make this distinction. But he’s got decades more of life (if the steroids don’t shorten it) to truly reclaim his soul, publically and privately, if he can learn to be truly humble. He’s not there yet.

Most Popular