Lance Armstrong, Does Good Outweigh the Bad?

Lance Armstrong, Does Good Outweigh the Bad?

I know that I’m quick to criticize companies that paint themselves as socially responsible, but that engage in practices that are unethical and obscure the truth behind the scenes. Avon, H&M, Walmart – they’ve all been on my hit list.

It’s why I find myself confused in my reaction to the USADA’s pronouncement last week that cycling legend Lance Armstrong has been found guilty of doping. He’s been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and kicked out of the sport. Yet, for some reason my hyper-critical tendencies aren’t kicking in: I find myself disappointed by the verdict, sad for Armstrong in his fall from grace, but in no mood to condemn the guy.

If he did indeed dope, that means he lied and cheated. He tainted the public’s view of the sport, potentially influenced others to go down the same doped-out path, and robbed others of victories that might have otherwise been theirs. It’s hard to spin it any differently.

But he’s also done a tremendous amount of good. His awe-inspiring seven Tour de France wins galvanized the cycling community, and inspired North Americans to take up the sport which was practically non-existent here in the 90s. Walking through Toronto’s very crowded bike show last weekend, I would estimate that road bikes represented 75% or so of the bikes on sale.

According to Bill Strickland, editor for the magazine Bicycling, Armstrong’s influence has gone beyond just road riding, tricking down to increased commuter cycling and greater reliance on bikes as a mode of transportation in urban areas. Bike retailers termed the marked rise in sales and interest in riding as ‘the Lance Armstrong effect.’ In an era when our society has grown increasingly sedentary, I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of this.

However, perhaps even more notable is what Armstrong has done with his Livestrong foundation, the charity he founded in 1997 after being told that testicular cancer had spread to his lungs and brain. At a time when nearly every person in North America is affected by cancer, be it directly or indirectly, Armstrong became a beacon of hope – not just that one can survivor such a prognosis but that they can also be a world champion in one of the most gruelling endurance sports out there. It was all just so bad ass.

Since its inception, the Foundation has raised $470 million to help cancer victims and their families. And it’s clear how much the Livestrong movement has captured hearts and minds, especially in the cycling community. I remember remarking to a friend this summer at a triathalon, that Livestrong apparel seemed more popular than any other brand in the sport. And just this morning at the gym, I asked a woman sporting the iconic yellow bracelet if she’s considered taking it off in the wake of USADA’s verdict. Without hesitation, she said “this is about ending cancer, that’s far bigger than Lance and these allegations.”

Lance was a hero on two wheels who inspired thousands, impacted countless lives, and gave people hope when it was needed the most. From his victories and his tale of survival, Armstrong became more than just a person – he became a brand, and a very powerful brand at that.

But does all that good cancel out lying, cheating, and taking victories from others who chose not to go down that same path? If we were talking about a company, I’d be unforgiving in saying of course not. But in the case of one individual, something about it just doesn’t feel as clear cut. Without those victories, the Livestrong movement wouldn’t have happened, at least not at the same scale; unfortunately we’ll never know if the victories would have happened with or without doping.

Am I being a hypocrite or just empathetic? Where do you draw the line?

Editor's Note: Since this article was written, Armstrong has stepped down from the Livestrong cancer charity and Nike has announced they have terminated their contract with the former cyclist for misleading them for more than a decade.

October 16, 2012