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What We Can Learn When Our Heroes Fall [re-post]

SPECIAL POST: This post initially appeared on on 10/22/12. In light of Lance Armstrong’s confession this evening to Oprah Winfrey that he did in fact use performance enhancing drugs to advance his career, I am re-posting this article. Next week I will post my reaction to the interview. I’m anxious to see which of these “effects” described below impacted his choices the most.

In my opinion, the only way for him to rebuild his reputation is to become fully transparent (including how he bullied others), pay up to those he wronged, and devote the rest of his career to being the conduit for cleaning up professional sports. He should admit he would have gone to his grave with his lies had he not been caught. But now he has a different kind of power– the power to use his own deceit, greed, and fame to stop others from doing the same. Unfortunately, his legal team won’t see it this way. Stay tuned Thursday and Friday on OWN.

Lance Armstrong reminds us of the common traps of ultra success.

I saw the recap on the news of the 15th anniversary celebration of the Livestrong Foundation. The founder, Lance Armstrong, took the stage to address the audience of supporters. He admitted that the last two weeks had been difficult. With the recent sway of public opinion now believing he took performance enhancing drugs throughout his career, you could see the toll of the past year in his face. He did not apologize or elaborate on his claim of innocence. He only said that he has experienced worse times, referring to his battle with cancer that almost took his life.

It’s worthy of a look behind the cloaks and public personas to extract the lessons, if any, that can be found when one of our heroes implodes. When a role model disappoints or misleads us, we feel betrayed and even angry.

I’ve been a devoted Lance Armstrong fan for decades. Read every book. Watched every minute of his Tour de France races. He was in my top 5 famous people I’d like to have around my dinner table. How could somebody so talented, so inspirational, and so beloved make choices that jeopardized everything he’d worked for and overcome?

I’ve watched the Lance saga unfold in recent months. I expressed my opinion on the investigation in my post, Livestrong or Livewrong.

These 10 effects created the perfect storm that can explain (not excuse) the rise and fall of a champion. They also apply to the scandals involving Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Tiger Woods, and Bernie Madoff, to name a few. Their relevance may extend to dysfunctional relationships, families and corporations.

The Snowball Effect

Once Lance Armstrong first denied ever using performance enhancing drugs, he set himself up for all the future lies to come. Once he successfully cheated the first drug test, he fueled his confidence to beat more tests. The more he lied, the more he had to lie. It doesn’t take long for this to snowball. The truth is buried in countless lies that coming clean seems impossible.

The longer he waits to tell the truth, the more severe the consequences for doing so. It’s less painful to keep lying.

The Bubble Effect

Lance Armstrong, as with many celebrities, live in their own bubble. He was surrounded by layers of protection. The more fame, the more layers of protection. Those that protected and supported Lance had every motivation to do so. He supported their lifestyle. To protect themselves, they were going to cushion him from every angle.

The Pact Effect

The reason so many people protected the lies of Lance Armstrong is because they were all guilty. These were blood brothers sworn to secrecy to protect not only Lance but each other. Like the psychology behind the Mafia or ruthless dictators, when everyone has something to lose, it’s easy to gain loyalty.

Through cooperation and participation, their futures became entwined and dependent on the pact.

The Kingpin Effect

Lance Armstrong was the king. His influence was indisputable. A new cyclist on the team honored to be chosen might have initially questioned the methods used to gain a competitive edge. So what does that “freshman” do? Look around. Seeing all the upperclassmen fall in line behind the king made questioning the status quo impossible. Once they took that first brown bag from the team doctor they were initiated into the pact and now personally invested in protecting the lies of the king.

The Investment Effect

The longer Lance Armstrong and his teammates used performance enhancing drugs, the more wins accumulated, the more money that was collected, the more invested he was in the methods that got them there. Like a habitual gambler, Lance was winning. Success breeds rationales much like highs motivate drug addicts to steal.  Lance and his staff perfected a formula for success. The motivation turned to perfecting the formula, fine tuning what was already proven to work. Investing deeper and deeper without ever questioning the original decision.

The Strings Effect

The more fame, money and success, the more there is to manage. With all these other effects in full force, now the king of cycling has dozens if not hundreds of people and families counting on him. His sponsors are counting on wins he kept delivering. He’s now buried in commitment well beyond his personal family ties. Creating more pressure and justification for doing whatever it took to stay successful.

The fear of losing it all drives those in the bubble to ignore their moral compass.

The Facade Effect

There is nobody more worthy of a fan club than a guy who is lying on his death bed fighting for his life and wins. Then fights to regain his strength. Then wins one of the most grueling athletic events in the world. His battle to beat cancer was heroic by anyone’s standards.

The more heroic you are in the eyes of the public, the higher the pedestal. The higher the pedestal, the more lonely. No one feels worthy of truly being next to you. I wonder what that felt like for Lance. His ego was fueled with premium gas but what about his soul? How lonely was it up there? Were all his supposed “friends” loyal because they were always looking up to him, dependent on him? Did he even recognize where his real self would land if the pedestal was removed?

The Culture Effect

Did all contenders use drugs in the Tour de France? Probably. Lance’s teammates say it was part of the culture of the sport. Is “everyone did it” a suitable excuse for illegal behavior? Those still believing Lance was unfairly stripped of his 7 tour titles voice their belief that he shouldn’t be singled out if they were all guilty.

Cultures are created by leaders who gain followers. Leaders are revered and provide guidance. To create cultural change, you have to go after the leaders. After all, the fish rots from the head down.

The Rationalization Effect

Lance reaped the benefits of being one of the world’s greatest athletes. The tour wins, money, fame, and the perks that came with that title. This afforded him a celebrity lifestyle but also rewarded sponsors and teammates. I suspect Lance felt no guilt because to him using performance enhancing drugs was just leveling the playing field. Not only did he feel no guilt, he felt right. Decisions didn’t stem from personal morals or the law. They were rooted in the game everyone was playing.

Distraction is another useful tool used to rationalize unethical practices. Draw the attention away from the bad to something indisputably good. Only a noble guy would put his heart and soul into a foundation that helps people fighting cancer. What better way to protect yourself than to turn the spotlight on the good stuff!

The Tiger in the Corner Effect

For years there were endless accusations with no hard evidence. When the USADA finally made headway, Lance attacked the investigators. Characterizing the investigation as an endless vendetta, he openly criticized every person who probed. If you broke the code of silence as Floyd Landis did when he was ripped of his Tour title, Lance attacked him personally and called him a liar. When Tyler Hamilton opened the door and exposed the ugly side of cycling, Lance accused him of lying to sell his book.

When you put a tiger in a corner, he lashes out to protect himself.

Now the bubble has burst and the tiger has fewer people in his corner. Those layers of protection are now reminders of betrayal.

This tiger has 2 choices as I see it. Climb in his cave and allow the dust to settle. Come out on occasion, focus on his foundation, and wear a thick skin for the rest of his life.

OR he could expose the entire truth, including how these “effects” impacted his decisions, and become the catalyst for change in professional sports. His knowledge could help improve testing, procedures and investigations.

It looks as though this tiger has chosen the first option. At least for now. Unfortunately.


"I believe that our background and circumstances may have influenced who we are, but we are responsible for who we become."


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One Comment
  1. Good to see a taenlt at work. I can’t match that.

    July 20, 2016

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