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How to Handle Scandal: Lance Armstrong

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What we know: As recently as 2005, Lance Armstrong was considered the greatest cyclist who had ever lived. He had risen out of cycling obscurity to win the sport’s most prestigious race, the Tour de France, a record seven consecutive times. That he accomplished the feat after surviving testicular cancer treatment endeared him to fans, earned him millions in endorsements and prize money and allowed him to found a cancer charity organization.

Sometimes events in the news – no matter how distasteful  – find their way into the classroom. This may happen due to student curiosity or lack of understanding, or because a scandalous event has far-reaching impact. When this happens, it's important to decide what you can and cannot say as an educator.

Individual schools and districts may have policies guiding teacher responses to sensitive issues, and we urge you to consult with an administrator before addressing these topics. At the very least, however, we'd like to help you fully understand the story. How to Handle Scandal features will appear when the news dictates and will be updated as details change.

Despite his never failing a drug test, allegations of blood doping and use of PED (performance-enhancing drugs) dogged Armstrong for the better part of his racing career. He staunchly defended his record and fiercely challenged anyone who claimed that he was cheating. At one point he successfully sued The Sunday Times of London for libel, based on an article the paper ran claiming he was dirty.

The allegations continued into the 2000s and were bolstered by the words of Emma O’Reilly, who was an employee of the U.S. Postal Service Team (the professional cycling team Armstrong captained), tasked with delivering messages to riders. O’Reilly stated that she witnessed rampant doping on the team and that she was used to transport PEDs across international borders. Still, Armstrong proclaimed his innocence.

In 2011, the allegations grew more intense as an Armstrong teammate, Tyler Hamilton, told “60 Minutes” that he was intimidated into joining the doping program. He said that he was made to believe that if he didn’t cheat with the rest of the team, he would not be on the team.

Hamilton’s accusations were followed up by Greg LeMond’s comments about the legitimacy of Armstrong’s record. LeMond was the most famous, most successful U.S. cyclist before Armstrong. A winner of three Tours de France, LeMond publicly questioned whether Armstrong’s feats were legitimate. As a result, Trek, the bike company that had endorsement deals with both LeMond and Armstrong, went to court to end its relationship with LeMond. It is believed in cycling circles that the move was initiated by a vengeful Armstrong.

lance armstrongStill, despite all the rumors and accusations, Armstrong was resolute in his claims of innocence and generally hailed as a titan of sport.

The fallout: In 2010, in the wake of mounting allegations, U.S. federal prosecutors launched an investigation of doping by Armstrong from 2010–2012. The government convened a grand jury to investigate the charges, including taking statements under oath from Armstrong's former team members. The grand jury also met with European officials and requested Armstrong’s urine and blood samples from the French anti-doping agency.

Two years later, the case was dropped without formal charges being filed. In June 2012, however, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) accused Armstrong of doping and trafficking of drugs, based on blood samples from 2009 and 2010, along with the testimony of witnesses including former teammates. Armstrong, who maintained his innocence, was suspended by USADA from competition in cycling and triathlon events. USADA said Armstrong used banned substances, including the blood-booster EPO and steroids, as well as blood transfusions dating back to 1996. Cycling's ruling body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), agreed with USADA’s decision, and Armstrong lost all seven Tour de France titles and received a lifetime ban from competition.

In fall 2012, Armstrong resigned as chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation cancer charity. The foundation was renamed Livestrong.

Amid growing negative publicity, Armstrong agreed to a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey. During the course of the January 17, 2013 interview, he admitted to blood doping and using PEDs. While he did not implicate anyone else in his cheating, he did admit that it would have been impossible to achieve the level of cycling success he had without the use of PEDs.

When asked by Winfrey if it felt wrong to cheat, Armstrong replied, "No. Scary." Winfrey asked, "Did you feel bad about it?" He replied, "No. Even scarier." She continued: "Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?" "No," Armstrong said. "Scariest."

The interview confirmed what others had been claiming for years—that Armstrong took banned substances and that they included the blood-booster EPO. He confirmed that he engaged in blood doping and transfusions, that he used testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone and that he took banned substances or blood dope during all his Tour wins.

All of Armstrong's sponsors had dropped him following USADA's decision, and in 2013 Nike cut ties with Livestrong, ending a nine-year relationship.


Potential issues to discuss in class:

  • What circumstances and environments do you think contributed to Armstrong’s decision to cheat?
  • Should Armstrong be forgiven for his dishonest behavior because he helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fight cancer?
  • It is alleged that cheating was rampant in cycling at the time. Does the fact that “everyone was doing it” make what Armstrong did any more acceptable?
  • For Armstrong, did the ends (winning the races) justify the means (cheating and bullying people in order to keep the secret)?
  • What do Armstrong’s replies to Winfrey’s questions indicate about his frame of mind and how he perceives his behavior? Did he apologize or seem sorry? Do you believe he displayed personal integrity?
  • If you were in Armstrong’s position, how would you have answered Winfrey’s questions?
  • Do you think the public will forgive Armstrong? Do you think those whom he accused of lying will forgive him? What will he need to do to earn forgiveness?
  • What measures can the cycling world take to prevent cheating in the future? Do you think Armstrong’s experiences will affect other cyclists’ decisions regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs?

Related resources

Character Lesson: Making a Good Apology
Character Lesson: Teaching Positive Traits
What Educators Can Do About Cheating
Cheating: Systems-Level Prevention

Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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