Monday, January 21, 2013

Lance Armstrong - competitive cyclist, cancer survivor, con man, confessor


Well, if you’re like me, you’ve watched both parts of the Lance Armstrong special (OK, I admit it, a couple of times each). I’ve met people like him, a small number and mostly in corporate; fiercely competitive, astronomically high on self-belief, selfish and self-absorbed in their focus about what needs to happen to ensure their success. In the wake of his 8 gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, a word was coined to describe achievements of extraordinary magnitude against the odds– such feats were “Phelpsian” (inspired by Michael). And so, the cyclist who loved to train, with the ruthless desire to win, was on his way to fame and fortune, until cancer struck. None of this suggests Lance Armstrong was anything but a gifted athlete. But the fierce competitor needed an edge in a tainted culture and from what we now understand that edge included corticosteroids, human growth hormone, Erythropoietin (EPO) and testosterone. Graham Watson the 30-year cycling photographer said in a recent blog post Armstrong himself endorsed that “Lance did what he had to do to win, and he clearly did it very well.”
But to really understand, we need to take account of the character of the man himself. A self-confessed ruthless competitor, who thought he was invincible, plunged into a corrupt culture and was ripe for seduction. Talented enough to have a real chance and fearful enough about the prospect of losing, what was going to give him the edge? Or as he suggested, create a “level playing field”? And once the invincible narcissist received adulation, money, love and respect (his biological father was gone by the time Lance was two), the addiction was entrenched. Winning the Tour de France, winning it more than once, winning it after cancer was an intoxicating story; the stuff Hollywood movies were made of. But this wasn’t Mighty Ducks or even Moneyball. This was real. Lance was on the bike and he couldn’t get off.
So the competitor, the cancer survivor was also a conman. But Lance couldn’t have done it alone and moreover, we now know that he didn’t. Cycling, swimming and weight lifting in the 1990’s and early 2000’s appear to have been to sport what Enron, Exxon and Lehmann Bros. were to corporate America, and in the same era.
Lance was enabled and incentivised. Remember, we see it at the Olympics. Gold medallists are set for life. Lesser medallists (and non-medallists) are often destined for obscurity. Thus when we consider what is rewarded and what is overlooked and forgotten, the die is cast when a bad culture meets the personality attributes described above. 
The Oprah interview took an interesting turn when Lance Armstrong and Oprah began discussing Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG foundation. That and his obvious love for his children may be the only things in his life that brought Lance Armstrong’s tenuous hold on reality to real attachments and meaning. Paradoxically, his “most humbling moment” was being asked by his own foundation in November last year to step down. The doping helped create Lance Armstrong, the cancer surviving legend, which in turn became his springboard to establishing LIVESTRONG. To date the Foundation has raised $500M. Was this one of the rationalisations for what Armstrong continued to do and lie about? If not for the doping, if not for the wins, how could he have raised so much money for cancer research? The rationalisation that the end justifies the means coupled with big payoffs are the classic breeding ground and perpetuators of bad behaviour.

After years of lying to cover up lying, when might a confessor typically confess? There are three common conditions. Firstly, the death bed confession is not a myth. Having nothing to lose and/or the desire for a clean conscience before one meets their maker are powerful motivators. Secondly, people can confess because they feel a rapport with the person who receives the confession. Armstrong had been interviewed by Oprah before and he liked her and (I’m sure) the gently managed legitimacy and protection her show could afford him. But because all the pundits said she’d be soft, she had to make sure she wasn’t. And thirdly, when else do people tend to confess? When evidence of wrongdoing is so overwhelming, the lies actually start to sound ridiculous. I believe it was for this reason, that Armstrong did not appeal the USADA finding.

While on the subject of USADA, how fascinating to observe the workings of an organisation that had a whole professional sport to salvage? There would have been no guilty conscience in scapegoating he who was found to be as guilty as sin and whom appeared to lie about it over and over. This was the supreme rationale for what Armstrong himself referred to as a “death sentence”. If there was ever a point to be made, it was now. If there was ever a message to be sent, this was the perfect storm. The decision to lynch Lance Armstrong followed the same logic as the decision by President Obama to take on the National Rifle Association in the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook massacre. These occurrences were not pretexts. They were the “burning platforms” for change. For those who remember Top Gun, someone had to “take the shot” because “it doesn’t get to look any better than that.”

The so-called fraud triangle has at its three apexes need/greed, opportunity and perceived likelihood of getting caught. Lance Armstrong the competitor was desperate to win. He knew no other way. This was his “need/greed”. Those who allegedly jumped on the bandwagon, sourced and administered his drugs and basked in his reflected glory provided his “opportunity”. And until the mid-2000’s given that EPO had been previously undetectable, the chance of him getting caught was small. Indeed his arrogance and self-confessed invincibility probably led him to believe he wouldn’t get caught and he said as much when he told Oprah he rued his comeback as he would probably otherwise have “gotten away with it.” Now I do believe he was telling the truth in that moment! 

At his deposition in 2005, he said plainly that if anyone was found guilty of the allegations of which he was accused, he knew that would undoubtedly be the end of everything. So the conman in him kept lying while the narcissist sued, bullied, abused, discredited and tantrummed.
The narcissist doesn’t often care if they hurt people and those who give negative feedback or contradict a story are so often treated with contempt. Watching him, I’m not sure Lance yet holds much remorse for those “crimes” but I did believe his shattered look and the seeming difficulty with which he spoke of his son who had kept defending him when his father’s actions had been indefensible.

So the interview has been broadcast and Lance will again be the major source of conversation around the water cooler this week. Was this the necessary first step forward to Lance’s healing? An exercise in forgiveness and self-forgiveness? Is it a cynical attempt to begin the journey to win back support because a hero wants to be a hero? A strategic ploy to begin the rebuilding of the brand for the sake of his family’s future financial security or simply the desperation of a man who wants someone in a position of authority to tell him he can run the Chicago marathon when he’s 50.
This is not just a sporting story or even the story of the inglorious fall of a sporting legend. It is also a story that heralds a serious warning. Be wary of high greed, fame, self-obsession and the justification of bad behaviour because “Why not? Everybody does it” or “Why not? Everybody wins”. We are in the long tail of a global financial crisis which has its origins in the same chilling combination of Gordon Gecko context and weak character we have seen in Lance Armstrong, fallen hero.