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Lance Armstrong Comes Clean—a Mixed Blessing for Sports

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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armstrong,cycling,dopingLance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey earlier this week that he’s been a drug cheat throughout his illustrious career was a mixed blessing for the sports world. On one hand, key questions have been answered and a perpetrator has been caught. We now know that cycling’s preeminent athlete over the past two decades managed to repeatedly best his competitors with the aid of banned substances including the hormone erythropoietin (EPO)—which stimulates the generation of red blood cells and boosts the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood—as well as blood transfusions and testosterone injections.

On the other hand, the excitement, inspiration and achievement that Armstrong brought to his sport, crossing over into pop culture in the process, now rings hollow. Armstrong’s once-impressive career is now forever tainted with the stigma of having been achieved by means other than skill, hard work and dogged determination.

Scientific American has taken on the issue of performance-enhancing substances in sports many times over the years. Most recently we examined the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) efforts to implement its athlete biological passport (ABP) program at the 2012 London Olympics to keep the competition (and competitors) clean. Cycling’s international governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), has for years used the ABP to crack down on dopers, although Armstrong was never caught.

For more on the science of winning at sports, see our in-depth report covering last summer’s Olympics.

Resident skeptic Michael Shermer also provided a personal take on the dilemma of pervasive drug abuse in cycling and other sports back in 2009.

Image of Armstrong riding the prologue of the 2004 Tour de France courtesy of Denkfabrikant, via Wikimedia Commons

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dwbd 8:01 pm 01/18/2013

    I get so sick of hearing this Lance Armstrong crap, there are serious issues to study. Yep, athletes cheat, there is $million in it for them to cheat, so they cheat. There are $trillions in it for the Oil & Gas Barons to cheat, and since most are sociopaths to begin with, you are god-darned right they cheat, steal, subvert, buy, corrupt, probably even kill to get those $trillions. The former topic is minor, the latter topic is major. Non-stop press on the former, zero press on the latter.

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  2. 2. SteveLaudig 8:16 pm 01/18/2013

    “Lance Armstrong Comes Clean—a Mixed Blessing for Sports” this headline is a lie. “Coming” or “in the process of coming” might be more accurate. “Comes” implies a completed process which isn’t true. He’s a little cleaner than his ‘pre-interview’ but he still has a lot of cleaning to do. Perhaps this ‘self-cleaning’ is better done in the dock, or behind bars.

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  3. 3. dwbd 10:44 pm 01/18/2013

    It is a sad reflection on the modern mass media and the public for how they get all wound up on some sports hero because he “cheated” yet they could care less about politicians & oil execs who sell us down the sewer, killing thousands if not millions, including children, in their lust for wealth. Compared to most politicians and Oil execs, Lance Armstrong is a saint.

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  4. 4. atsker 12:58 am 01/19/2013

    difficult story

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  5. 5. textra 1:16 am 01/19/2013

    At least there has been some movement from a monumental liar. Truly amazing that the obsession to win at any cost would lead to this dark moment. What about play for the fun of it? I remember many games as a kid where we didn’t want to keep score. That took away the pure fun of the game. Now it’s an obsession that has gone very far in our culture. Amateur sports can wreck kids. Lance needs to watch The Sandlot movie. Those ragtag boys had something Lance Armstrong lost many years ago.

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  6. 6. Rob Hooft 5:55 am 01/19/2013

    “Armstrong’s once-impressive career is now forever tainted with the stigma of having been achieved by means other than skill, hard work and dogged determination.”? I partly disagree. His results could not have been achieved without hard work and dogged determination. It is unfortunate that they have not been achieved without a forbidden cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs. Taking these drugs even though they could destroy the body in the long run may actually be a showcase of dedication.

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  7. 7. Terrybots 6:37 am 01/19/2013

    It seems clear that all the top cyclists were cheating so Lance had to excel to beat them.

    Doesn’t make it right but the blame/shame should be spread much further.

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  8. 8. outsidethebox 10:52 am 01/19/2013

    So—- you have many obsessed with exhibitions of athleticism which are done for money (pro sports). But are very offended when something comes along to remind them that it was all about the money and not the athleticism. Destroying people’s illusions always gets them very upset. The behavior of athletes who take drugs is far more rational than that of “the fans”.

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  9. 9. glideair 11:08 am 01/19/2013

    Why is there such a universal fear of professional sports degrading itself into a non-entity? Will the world continue to spin without it?
    Somebody turned a blind eye or someone’s wheels were greased generously. Am I to believe this is something new? Somebody “dropped the ball”, pardon the pun.

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  10. 10. alan6302 10:07 pm 01/19/2013

    He reminds me of doctors.

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  11. 11. priddseren 10:54 pm 01/19/2013

    This is relevant to Science in what particular way? I would rather read the nonsense psuedo science of the Global warmists at least the claims they have are potentially relevant. What Lance Armstrong or any other athlete or sport does is totally and completely NOT relevant. Global warming wont stop, little girls in pakistan could still be shot, various diseases still exist, we have food distribution problems, a need for alternative fuels, we have a world wide political class hell bent on oppressing everyone, sports and lance armstrong are simply not relevant compared to all of that.

    Of course, the fact that athletes do this does allow for what are essentially free human trials of the effects of various drugs, steroids and etc… this being the case I say let more of them cheat.

    What is worse is this guy is not somehow being punished. He is on TV with Oprah, likely to have some kind of future, why I did what I did book deal and who knows what else. If society truly was punishing this guy then Oprah should have turned her nose in distaste, no book deals coming and everyone else just ignoring him. TV, books and etc… this is all just him continuing to profit.

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  12. 12. Franciscomeme 9:23 am 01/20/2013

    I am not sure about this but i think the fact that we won 7 Tour’s de France in a row means that it was not the doping that made him win. If it was the doping one of his adversaries could take a bigger dose and won too. To me he his a great champion despite having cheated.

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  13. 13. khaledkhan671 3:09 pm 01/20/2013

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  14. 14. jtdwyer 7:52 pm 01/20/2013

    I agree with “Terrybots” and others that if Armstrong hadn’t won by doping other dopers would have won.

    A much more serious violation of public trust was the corruption and greed of the financial firms that lead to the loss of $billions of the world’s individual resources. Their actions were criminal – perhaps deserving of the guillotine! In comparison, Lance Armstrong is just some sociopathic jerk who lies…

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  15. 15. jbairddo 6:42 am 01/21/2013

    Dumbest comment ever, “he reminds me of doctors” how is the relevant and what does it even mean, this degree of randomness is greater than the oil barons comments.

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  16. 16. Steven 2:27 pm 01/21/2013

    I was a former supporter, not necessarily a fan, but supporter of Lance Armstrong, due to his overcoming testicular cancer, although this was actually an achievement by his doctors, with all the skills of modern medicine. He was a cancer victim with widespread metastatic disease to lymphatic system, lungs and two metastasis or tumors spread to his brain. He started treatment in Texas, had a round of chemotherapy, unilateral orchiectomy, and then when he had headaches, the brain tumors were discovered, and he went to an Oncologist, Craig Nichols, in Indiana I believe, who was an expert at treating testicular cancer. The tumors were removed by Neurosurgery, at some risk to his sight and motor system, but the surgery was successful, and then he underwent three more courses of chemotheray, according to an affidavit of Dr. Craig Nichols, in the matter of Lance Armstrong and Tailwind Sports, which is available on the internet, 8 Dec, 2005. He noted treatment with chemotherapy, including cisplatin, etoposide, and ifosfamide. Since the introduction of cisplatin treatment, testicular cancer has become largely curable while before it was available, it was largely fatal.
    I don’t know about Lance Armstrong’s motivation toward doping or doing anything to win, and skirting the laws or regulations. Such an approach certainly is beyond the bounds of sportsmanship. Certainly enormous amounts of money are involved, up to a hundred million dollars it is estimated, and probably there will be ongoing lawsuits to recover money which was lost by businesses, sponsors, and organizers, due to essentially fraudulent behavior.
    Did Lance Armstrong hold off on confessions until after the statue of limitations had expired, and just saying what his legal counsel tells him to say, essentially preparing a legal defense, in hopes of retaining his hundred million dollar fortune?
    I hope there is some honesty left in sports, and it is not just a pursuit of money, although in professional sports, the money is certainly the objective. Professional athletes earning millions and millions of dollars. It seems to be the fatal flaw in professional athletics. Now there is talk of removing bicycling from the Olympic games. What started out as sportsmanship and fellowship among nations and athletes has degenerated into winning at any price, apparently with money being the motivation.
    I am concerned about Lance Armstrong, and his history of metastatic brain tumors and extensive chemotherapy. Is his judgment normal? There is an entity, “Chemo brain” which results in mild cognitive impairment. Memory problems, remembering names, short attention span, trouble concentrating. These are real effects of extensive chemotherapy. Have the effects of metastatic brain cancer, and extensive chemotherapy for his testicular cancer affected Lance Armstrong’s judgment?
    Did he understand the implications of doping, or taking drugs or blood transfusions. Apparently he just thought he was “leveling the playing field”. Self deception or limited mental facilities.
    I really can’t make a final conclusion in the case of Lance Armstrong. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem.
    Just having cancer, having to have orchiectomy, or removal of the cancerous testicle, and brain surgery for removal of two brain tumors, and extensive chemotherapy, while curative, also is life threatening and would change a persons perspective on life and death. Also the removal of the testicle did have effects on his hormonal status. Having defeated death, he may have felt invincible.
    Lance Armstrong had a reputation as self centered. His interview with Oprah was described by Yahoo Sports commentator, Dan Wetzel as defiant, distant, difficult, arrogant, unaware, flippant. These characteristics could all be descriptive of persons with limited brain function.
    Certainly they could just be “Lance”, but also could be Lance with effects from metastatic brain cancer, brain surgery, and extensive chemotherapy. Essentially “Chemo brain” plus.
    Although athletes, especially super-athletes sometimes have demanding personalities, in fact they almost by definition must have extraordinary mental toughness, I think there may be more to it than that.
    Unfortunately, it’s more than Lance, but an entire sport at risk here, from his behavior, and may other dedicated athletes who play by the rules. He was a leader of his team. If he was somehow flawed in his judgment, it’s doubly catastrophic for those who were under his leadership. Essentially guiding a ship with a broken rudder.

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