Armstrong: Cheat or victim of can-do-ism?

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser

While Lance Armstrong, former international cycling superstar, has not owned up to doping allegations, the evidence has become too compelling to continue denying. This raises a difficult question: is he simply an immoral cheat? Or is he also a symptom - perhaps even a victim - of unhealthy American can-do-ism? Armstrong, it would seem, represents the best and worst of American competitiveness.

I have met and befriended a number of brilliant young Americans, many of them international Rhodes Scholars studying at Oxford University. Many have shopping lists of exceptional CV achievements that make most other students feel like impostors. It is not surprising that one of them might have been a concert pianist during high school already, and that this is a measly extramural achievement, competing with several international languages they have learnt, internships completed at the White House perhaps, and of course a few "summers abroad" spent building houses in war torn African villages or a few clinics in Aids-ravaged South Africa, in between a stint in the Navy.

What lies beneath

They look the part, move around comfortably at cocktail parties with an enviable ability to work the room, sounding intimidatingly confident as they rehearse a future life of prominent public leadership.

And yet, for all this appearance of controlled achievement and brilliance, there is lots of anxiety that lurks beneath. Being the curious creature that I am, I often put pressure on some of these acquaintanceships, having little time for relationships based on pretense. And what I sometimes found exposed an American culture of extreme competitiveness that breeds dysfunctional young adults who simply learn how to mask their demons. It is therefore unsurprising to me that in that context Lance Armstrong can both emerge as an exceptional hero and a pathetic cheat. 

Of course we should not let a cheat off the hook. Lance Armstrong is not a robot. He has the intellectual capacity and free will to decide what to do and what not to do. But it is important to situate Armstrong's cheating within an American culture that makes such cheating unsurprising. America, especially middle class America, has some soul searching to do.

The tragedy of competitiveness in overdrive

Armstrong was already a professional triathlete at the age of 16. He immediately started raking in achievements nationally and internationally, and became so used to the high of winning that a first crack at retirement was bound to fail. With so much natural aptitude on early display, it is particularly tragic that doping allegations should be so compelling. One can't help but wonder if Armstrong could not have achieved the same outcomes with only the biological resources he was gifted from Mother Nature?

But the tragedy here is worse: claims by fellow athletes that they too took drugs are further evidence of American competitiveness in overdrive. The pressure to succeed in the United States is so extreme that personal integrity can easily be squandered for apparent success. It's certainly not an excuse (there are counter-examples, after all, of men and women with integrities intact), but it is a reason to reflect on whether programmatic childhoods aimed at mopping up only the best possible awards at school and in life generally, is healthy.

American kids, especially those in middle class families, experience too much pressure. (This is true even if one also, of course, notes that doping scandals happen in places like China too. Their cultural origins in American society are distinct. In places like China it is often driven by politics, including geopolitical warfare through sporting activity.)

One of my contemporaries, New York Times bestselling author, Jonah Lehrer, is a literary example of this madness. An enviably gifted writer with a background in neuroscience, he cut a calm, reflective, deeply intelligent and handsome figure at Oxford University. Before the age of 30 he had attained national fame, and was bound to be one of the best science writers of his generation. Now his career is in tatters. He made up, and falsely attributed, quotes to Bob Dylan in his recent book (un)ironically entitled Imagine: how creativity works.

And yet Lehrer's early work – not grounded in academic cheating – is so brilliant that one again wonders why someone would not be content with their natural endowment? Is Lehrer, like Armstrong, simply an immoral cheat? It is tempting to say "yes" but that would be an incomplete answer. The truth is that when you are surrounded by other brilliant people all your life and desperate to prove that you can be first among equals, then taking short cuts become unsurprising, even if doing so is inexcusable.

This is not to suggest that Armstrong – or a Jonah Lehrer – should be pitied. It is also not to deny their agency. They are fully responsible for their actions. But human beings do not exist in a vacuum. We exist in family structures, local communities and societies-at-large. And, in my experience, there are too many other stories I could share of brilliant Americans like Armstrong who seem to have needlessly faltered.

And this seems to beg the question: Is American society blameless in the making of cheats like Armstrong? I think not. Indicting society is, let’s not forget, compatible with holding cheats individually accountable for dropping the ball – or injecting the needle, as the case might be.

  • Eusebius McKaiser is the host for Talk at Nine on Radio 702 during the week, a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He holds law and philosophy degrees from Rhodes and Oxford universities. This article was published on