Lance Armstrong and the Ethics of Competition

On Wednesday, The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released a small mountain’s worth of evidence against champion cyclist Lance Armstrong. Not surprisingly, comparisons to corruption in the world of business were not far behind. On Twitter, a number of wags referred to Armstrong as the “Bernie Madoff of cycling,” or variants on that.

The comparison with Madoff is unsurprising. In both cases, you have wrongdoing of impressive scope. In both cases, the wrongdoing was truly brazen, going on right under the noses of regulators. In both cases, you can’t escape the feeling that someone should have been able to figure it all out sooner. And in both cases, you see the eventual fall of a man who was a hero to many.

But the comparison is also off-target in important ways.

For one thing, the USADA’s account of things suggest that Armstrong was not just a cheat, but a ringleader. While others may have been complicit in Madoff’s scheme, there’s no suggestion that he engaged in organized, cynical bullying to push others into wrongdoing the way Armstrong apparently did. Armstrong is accused of having used his position of leadership to coerce others into cheating too.

The bigger difference, though, has to do with differences in the nature of the competitive contexts in which Armstrong and Madoff were each embroiled. Madoff was a stockbroker and investment advisor. It is a job in which an honest person can find success. For all the talk of Wall Street being a place where crooks thrive, there’s no indication that an investment advisor has to be a crook just to survive or to do his or her job effectively. And even if it were the case that cooking the books was somehow normal, something “everyone was doing,” that fact would do absolutely nothing to justify Madoff’s ponzi scheme. It’s not something that, in any sense, Madoff had to do.

Armstrong, on the other hand, was a cyclist competing at elite levels, during an era in which, by all accounts, doping was absolutely rampant. And in such a setting, it does at least arguably matter that “everybody does it.” It is an unfortunate fact that in the world Armstrong competed in, for every individual cyclist doping was a necessary evil, a way of keeping the playing field level. Any cyclist not engaging in doping was effectively relegating himself to the back of the pack. That’s not an excuse, but it’s an accurate description of the facts of the case.

So doping was, in a sense, non-optional for the elite cyclist trying to do his job properly, because after all his job is to try to win. And during the era in question, doping was apparently “allowed” under the unwritten rules of the cycling game. It was embedded in the social norms of the relevant group. It was, in other words, a collective problem. Regrettable, to be sure, but the sort of problem that is devilishly hard to solve, and against which individual integrity is absolutely impotent to solve it.

In this sense, doping is much more like bribery than like a ponzi scheme. Where bribery is rampant, it may literally be true that a company cannot compete without engaging in that kind of corrupt behaviour. But bribery, like doping, is an arms race that no one can be sure of winning. And the damage it does is significant. Like doping, it exposes competitors to all sorts of dangers. And when such behaviour is exposed — as in the case of Walmart Mexico earlier this year — the result is not just scandal, but a loss of confidence in the integrity of the game itself.

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