Okay, I admit it, as a fan of cycling, Greek tragedy and spy novels, I’m more than a little caught up in the whole Lance Armstrong doping saga. Having recently read Tyler Hamilton’s memoir, a retired cyclist and admitted doper, the entire Lance Armstrong cycling years play out like a cross between a Greek tragedy and a spy novel.
A promising athlete from a small town in Texas, abandoned by his father at a young age, is suddenly stricken with a horrible disease and brought to within an inch of his life; A heroic comeback from cancer ensues; an unheralded team of underrated riders, led by Lance, winning the Tour de France; and then winning it six more times; wealth, fame, mass adulation; while behind the scenes lurks an ethically-challenged and undeniably brilliant Italian doctor, secret trips to Spain and Italy for blood and drugs with code names like, “Edgar,” “Red Eggs,” “Vitamin B,” and “Poe;” a mysterious “Motoman,” following the tour on a superbike with a cooler of EPO strapped to it; disposable phones; corrupt officials; furtive trips to cheap hotels for infusions and injections; friendships, rivalries, epic battles, betrayals, bribes and bullying; and one extraordinarily fevered ego – cloaked in the hero’s cape – seemingly behind it all.
Yes, there is little doubt that Lance Armstrong cheated – so too has nearly every other top-level rider in the Tour de France during the Lance years – but what does it say about American culture that Lance was so darn good at it and held onto the lie so well and for so long? Hamilton’s memoir points out on numerous occasions, and with ironic admiration, that Lance cheated and trained so effectively, methodically and obsessively that he was always a year or two ahead of his competition, particularly from a purely scientific / doping standpoint.
Of course, other cultures and other cyclists from many other nations cheat and are quite good at cheating, so I apologize if my question smacks of a sort of backhanded cultural arrogance. However, so many American cultural values – for better or for worse – seem to be on display when it comes to the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong. I can’t help but view this story in a cultural context.
Played out against RW3 CultureWizard’s cultural dimensions for the US, Lance Armstrong is the quintessential American
Egalitarian, Lance always brought attention to the team and carried the veneer of a “team player.” He was known and liked by journalists for his relaxed, Informal and charming demeanor. Yet behind the public face, Lance was notoriously Individualistic, and often isolated and double-crossed teammates who were getting to close to his level of excellence. When it came to Controlling Time, a Swiss watchmaker didn’t have anything on Lance, as he was known to berate teammates for being even five minutes late to training sessions. As for Internal Control, Lance didn’t leave anything up to chance, was considered one of the best race strategists ever and is now infamous for how much control he attempted to impart over his own aspirations, colleagues and rivals. Finally, given the enormous wealth and fame he amassed, and what he risked to attain it – brutal training, drugs, divorce and all the lies, Lance is as High Status as they come!
When it comes to communication style, Lance was very much the American “straight-talker” who seems to say what he means and mean what he says – even when he was lying. However, while Lance was certainly a Direct Communicator, one of the unspoken cultural norms around typical American communication patterns is that one is actually communicating the truth. And here’s where Lance is likely to get in some real trouble. American culture is often to quick to forgive the sin and the sinner, but lying about the original transgression tends to evoke the ire of America, from both a social and legal perspective. (Remember Martha Stewart? Punished not for the crime, but for lying about the crime.) Notice how quickly Lance’s longtime sponsors of Oakley, Nike and Trek dropped him once evidence of his lying became near irrefutable.
The question remains, why did Lance Armstrong lie and hold to the lie so steadfastly? In his powerful essay on the American Cult of the Self, journalist Chris Hedges writes of the dangerous heights that self-absorption and narcissism have attained: a culture where the ends do justify the means. Where wealth, fame and status are such compelling societal forces that individual accountability and responsibility to the greater good of community – even to ones own health and well-being – are barely an afterthought in the maniacal pursuit of super-attainment. Can you imagine a cancer survivor doing so many potentially cancer-causing steroids? It’s only after the fall, when the traditional American values of honesty, fairness and decency seem to return to the memory of both the fallen and those duped by the fallen. As for the case of the still unrepentant Lance Armstrong and the culture that cheered him on through improbable victory after victory, I’m still waiting for that moment, and curious how forgiving America might be to someone who lied so much, so well and for so long.