Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

E&E in A&D: The Armstrong Lie

Posted 18 Jan 2015 / 0

2015-01-18I just finished watching the 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie. I do not get much time to watch movies — and my favorite genre of movie, documentaries — very much these days, but I used to be a big fan of pro cycling in the Armstrong era, so I knew that I had to check this one out. I am always a bit of a contrarian when it comes to sports. I like to root against the big favorites. I often engage in a kind of “schadenfreude fandom”: if in a given year the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, and whatever team LeBron James is on do not win a championship as expected by their multitudes of entitled fans, I consider it a good year. So it was with Lance Armstrong. For whatever reason, I never really bought into the myth. Perhaps this was because he was popular, which made it hard for me to root for him. But I also want to say — with admitted twenty-twenty hindsight — that I had picked up on something inauthentic about Armstrong. He always seemed like a fraud to me, even wrapped in all the cancer-survivor and saviour-of-American-cycling banners.

And, I despise cheating. I have an admittedly-overactive sense of fairness, which is perhaps the reason that I am so interested in the scientific study of cooperation and its antithesis, cheating.

The Armstrong Lie is an fascinating documentary, one whose original purpose (to chronicle Lance Armstrong’s comeback to the Tour de France in 2009) was turned on its head by reality (the eventual unraveling of Lance Armstrong’s contention that he had never used performance-enhancing drugs). The movie is nicely done, providing for the lay viewer a window into the world of pro cycling while quenching most of the cycling fan’s thirst for knowing what really happened during Armstrong’s unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France victories.

This is probably not a spoiler unless you have been living under a rock: Lance Armstrong was eventually forced to admit that he cheated, breaking pro cycling rules by using a variety of drugs and other techniques to boost recovery and maintain near-supernatural levels of red blood cells in his system. What the movie untangles is the fact that this sort of “doping” was commonplace in cycling for decades, with methods for breaking rules co-evolving with both the rules themselves and the methods of detection required to enforce these rules. In the documentary it is never quite clear if Armstrong was the best cyclist using performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s) within a profession where everyone was cheating somewhat equally, or whether he was the best cheater in a sport where cheating was rampant but not uniform. What is clear is that none of Armstrong’s most amazing physical feats were accomplished without doping.

I am interested in sports in general — and cheating in particular — in the context of cooperation. Sports themselves involve a lot of cooperation, starting with their very premise. To play a sport with any meaning there must be agreement about the rules of the game. Two teams cannot play basketball against each other if one team expects free throws to be worth one point while the other team expects them to be worth ten points. The rules of sports represent a special form of social norms that operate within the confines of the field of play for that sport, and implicit in agreeing to play a given sport is the agreement to cooperate with others by honoring those rules. For the moment-to-moment violations of these rules we have “fouls” enforced by umpires or referees. For broader violations of rules we have anti-doping agencies and other institutions charged with monitoring athlete behavior by professional sports governing bodies. To maintain the cooperation implied in abiding by the codified social norms of a given sport, there are punishments ranging from minor penalties during the game (my favorite is hockey’s “penalty box”, where a player is taken off the ice for a period proportional to the rule violation) to lifetime bans from the sport.

In the case of cycling, there is the occasional need to enforce rules during a given race. Cyclists gain unfair advantage by breaking rules — such as those associated with receiving help from their team vehicles — and can be sanctioned for this cheating. But the bigger issue in cycling is the widespread cheating involved in using PED’s: cycling is such a sport of fleeting margins, that any advantage gained by better doping can lead to a dramatically unfair advantage. For this reason, the very integrity of cycling as a sport — and the meaning of the accomplishments of its athletes — is dependent on proper enforcement of rules. If everyone is allowed to use caffeine as a performance-enhancing drug, then let everyone take in as much caffeine as they can handle. But if you want to ban caffeine, you need to do so uniformly, so that no individual athlete can enjoy the performance-enhancing benefits of this substance more than any other athlete.

The Armstrong Lie unveils what it took to allow Lance Armstrong to break cycling’s anti-doping rules year after year. There are layers of cooperation and cheating involved in his deception, layers that should interest any serious student of cooperation. What I find most interesting is that how you define “cooperation” and “defection” in this case really depends on what scale you consider. Let us start with Armstrong, a dedicated doper: who was he cheating when he took PED’s?

Was Armstrong cheating his teammates?
Perhaps, perhaps not, depending on your perspective. You could argue that Armstrong undermined the interests of his teammates by basically compelling him to join him in cheating. Basically, you could not help Armstrong during a race if you did not engage in some of the same forms of cheating. Some of these techniques — in particular “blood doping” or the use of EPO — are potentially dangerous to the health of these athletes, so one could argue that Armstrong was compelling his teammates to take these risks. But balanced with these risks are a lot of rewards. Armstrong’s teammates were associated with his victories, and these associations had direct value to these teammates in the form of future cycling sponsorship and/or media exposure leading to future careers. A team containing cheaters can beat a team without cheaters in cycling, so there are great team benefits to be reaped by a team leader who promotes — or even requires — cheating.

Was Armstrong cheating the members of other cycling teams?
This seems like the clearest “yes”, but upon looking closer one realizes that even this question is subtle. It seems pretty likely that Armstrong was an exceptionally good cheat, as his teams consistently outperformed the competition. If that is the case, Armstrong’s doping represented an unfair advantage, a violation of the cooperative agreement not to used banned techniques to enhance performance. But there is where the subtlety enters, as whatever performance-enhancing advantage Armstrong’s team reaped was relative to whatever cheating the rest of the teams were doing… and it seems like cheating was rampant if not ubiquitous.

Was Armstrong cheating the overall sport of cycling?
This is a tough question to answer, as it depends on how you define what is in the best interest of the sport. If the long-term interest of the sport is in clean competition — or at least competition that occurs within the stated boundaries of existing rules — then Armstrong’s deception and cheating seem like they have huge potential to harm the sport. But what if there is a collective (perhaps unspoken) agreement to ignore certain rules in order to produce more exhilarating race results? As told by The Armstrong Lie, this seems like an apt description of what was going on during the 1990’s and 2000’s in professional cycling: there was a cooperative “code of silence” about doping. If that is the case, one could argue that cooperation in cheating was actually benefiting cycling by raising public interest in the sport. This may be the reason that Armstrong was “never” caught cheating: he may have been too valuable as a marketing tool to the sport as a whole to be punished for his transgressions.

Was Armstrong cheating the public at large?
Again, the answer depends on how you define your ideal outcome. If you just want exciting cycling, you may not care about doping. The Armstrong Lie does a wonderful job of showing how Armstrong’s narrative was a powerful ally in his deception, and doping can facilitate a lot of the “big comeback” and “dramatic swings in competition” that make sports more interesting to the public. To say that Armstrong cheated the public, you have to define a public interest in competition with integrity, competition by the stated rules of the sport. If you see that as the public’s interest, then Armstrong is potentially the biggest cheater in the history of sport. Where else have seven years of results been called into question?

What emerges from answering — or trying to answer — the questions above is that the nature of cheating and cooperation in a sport like cycling is complex. What is cooperative really depends on whose interests you consider, and there is cooperation at one level to cheat at another level. The only way to really say that Armstrong was a definitive cheat is if you “elevate” the public at large’s interest in watching a “clean” sport that abides by its stated rules. Otherwise, what constitutes cooperating and what constitutes defecting is not entirely clear. I have no problem saying that I value the forms of cooperation that leave dopers as “cheats”. I do not want to watch a bunch of technologically-enhanced athletes competing, I want to see real humans pushing their limits on the bike (even if that bike itself is technologically-evolving). I do not want there to be pressure in the sport to take risks to health and career because “everyone else is doing it”. And I want the rules stated to the public to be the actual rules by which the sport of cycling is conducted. But notice how clearly I have to state my values in order to really define which forms of cooperation I want to encourage and which I want to discourage. Because there’s so much cooperation involved in the doping that went on in cycling during 2000’s, I cannot simply say “I wish there was better cooperation and less cheating in cycling”.

What is so fascinating about cycling is how it is a sport built on cooperation. You do not win most races — much less a major stage race like the Tour de France — without the cooperation of your team. To people new to cycling, this is surprising, because cycling seems fundamentally like an individual sport. But it is not, because the dynamic of riding in a large group (the peloton) and cheating the wind requires that riders cooperate and “take turns” doing the hard work of riding out in front. In pro tour cycling, teams are built around a particular rider with the potential to perform well in the most crucial stages of the overall tour, and the remaining members of the team are charged with laboring on behalf of their team leader. It is a classic case of altruistic sacrifice to benefit another, with the hope that the accumulated prestige of a win for the team showers indirect benefits on those who sacrificed their own results for the winning team leader.

The Armstrong Lie chronicles the less virtuous side of this cooperation. To support a cheating team leader, the members of his team are also compelled to cheat, and to lie about it. And when enforcement of established rules breaks down, the entire sport becomes dependent on cheating. The sport reaches a point where there are written rules and actual rules, with both athletes and the administrators of their sport colluding to deceive the public. The sport is portrayed as “clean” (free from doping) when it is not. And to maintain that you need to maintain a cooperative “code of silence”, one that in the case of Armstrong’s era was impressively consistent and uniform. Defection becomes telling the truth, coming clean about rules violations. Someone ends up defecting and telling the truth, in part because we have a media that is incentivized to root out cheating, but perhaps more prominently because not everyone shares evenly in the benefits associated with cooperative cheating pacts.

Michael Shermer — a former elite endurance cyclist and current expert on deception and cooperation — has written some great articles on how we can use cooperation to understand the use of performance-enhancing drugs:

The Huffington PostWhy Athletes Dope

Scientific AmericanThe Doping Dilemma

A Major Post, Altruism, Behavior, Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Film & Video, Game Theory, Group Selection, Play, Punishment, Reciprocity, Reputation, Social Norms

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