Lance Armstrong: A moral dilemma for all of us

How should we feel about an athlete who cheated to achieve fame and glory, but who also has been remarkably charitable? Such is the case with Lance Armstrong, the one-time winner of seven Tour de France cycling races. Unfortunately for him, the Tour itself, and fans of both, Armstrong’s wins were ill begotten. He cheated; he used performance enhancing drugs in each of the seven years that he won the race.

It’s natural to condemn an athlete for taking an unfair advantage over his or her opponents. He violated the rules as well as basic moral principles. But if he used the fame and fortune that he gained from his supposed accomplishments for the betterment of society, should we let him off the hook? Should we say that it doesn’t matter how he accumulated the money since much of it has gone to a worthy cause? Should we also give him a break on his cheating because cycling is a sport in which a competitor can justify using performance enhancing drugs because “everyone else is using them too?”

The public reaction has been mixed to Armstrong since the last of the investigations has ended and he has been found guilty. In a population which generally has a difficult time dealing with complex moral issues (or complex issues of any sort), many people have both condemned Armstrong while also showering him with adulation. Perhaps the American people are the real winners from “the Armstrong saga” because they have generally been able to see it clearly and they have the benefits of all the work that he has done to increase cancer awareness in the United States and beyond.

In 1996 when Armstrong was twenty-five years old, he was diagnosed as having stage three testicular cancer. It spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. Armstrong chose an alternative treatment to avoid additional lung toxicity. If he was going to recover sufficiently to resume his cycling career, he needed to take special care of his lungs. Fortunately for him the treatment at the University of Indiana in Indianapolis cured his several cancers.

Even if Armstrong was taking performance-enhancing drugs, his performance at the Tour de France, other cycling events, marathons, and in several triathlons was remarkable. Like athletes in other sports who have taken various forms of illegal drugs such as baseball player Mark McGwire, Armstrong put himself through exceptional rigorous training regimens.

In June, 2012, Armstrong was charged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency with using performance-enhancing drugs. In October he was found guilty of the charges and stripped of his seven championships in the Tour.

But while Armstrong was winning the Tour from 1999-2005 and in the years since, he established the Lance Armstrong Foundation and its Livestrong program to raise awareness of cancer and to support research and care for patients. Since its inception, Livestrong has raised over $250 million for its cause.

When Armstrong was found guilty of using illegal drugs while cycling, he resigned from all positions that he held with Livestrong. He said that he did not want his travails to reflect upon the foundation and its work. Currently Livestrong is reorganizing its governance and planning to proceed without Armstrong. It is hoped that despite the scandal that has shrouded Armstrong the Foundation will continue to receive its level of donations and will be able to continue with all of its work.

So is Armstrong both a heroic athlete and a charitable person? This is not an easy dilemma to reconcile. Fortunately, it seems that in this case, the American people are up to the task of dealing with a complicated issue.