Heroes and Villains

“Lance Armstrong is a bad guy who has done some very good things.”

These are the words of a sports radio personality I listened to yesterday. He was obviously commenting on the confession (to my pal Oprah) by Armstrong about his use of performance enhancing drugs. The sportscaster, along with many I heard talk on the subject, were not as upset by the fact that Armstrong used the banned substances, or his lies on the subject, but the way he went after anyone who accused him of what turned out to be the truth. Armstrong used his position of fame and power, along with his significant wealth, to attack the credibility of people in both the media and in the courtroom. The phrase, “he destroyed people’s lives” has been used frequently when describing his reaction to accusations.

It’s a horrible thing he did, and shows an incredibly self-centered man who thought the world should bend to his whim. It’s more proof to the adage: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But simply dismissing Lance as a cad or a horrible person would be far easier if not for the other side of his life. In his public battle against cancer, he inspired many facing that disease to not give up their battle. Even for those who eventually lost, the encouragement many got from Armstrong’s story was significant. On top of that, the Livestrong foundation did much to raise money and awareness for cancer and for other significant health issues. This foundation exists because of the heroic story of Lance’s successful battle to beat cancer, as well as his subsequent cycling victories. Whatever the lies he told in the process, he did beat cancer and he did win the Tour de France multiple times.

So that leaves us with a puzzle: how do we regard him? He is almost a caricature of contradiction, someone who did more good than most of us would hope to do in a lifetime, who accomplished amazing physical feats after beating death in a staring match. Yet he is also someone who lied openly and coldly tore down the lives of people who opposed him. It seems that the only consistent thing is that when he faced an obstacle, he was unwavering and relentless in beating the challenge it posed. The same focus and determination that caused him to beat cancer, win the yellow jerseys, and make huge amounts of money for a worth cause, is what caused him to be able to lie without flinching and tear lives apart without showing much remorse.

He’s complicated. But isn’t that true of everyone? We have a desire to label people as “good” or “bad.” We want our political side to be the moral one and the other to be immoral. We want followers of our religious beliefs to be the righteous, and anyone else be a sinner. Doing so shows a denial of what is blatantly obvious for anyone who looks: we are all, to some extent, Lance Armstrong.

I see this as a doctor, where people either assume I am a saint because of my job, or a self-centered money-grubbing scoundrel. I see it when people talk of the “evil pharmaceutical companies,” or the “immoral insurance companies.” I see it when people classify smokers, obese people, or medically noncompliant patients as “bad”, “stupid”, or “deficient.” We want to put a single label on a person, either lifting them up to a standard we want to reach, or putting them down so that we can feel better about our own deficiencies. We seem to all need heroes and villains in our lives, but I have yet to meet a person who didn’t qualify for both. I certainly do.

Perhaps instead of glorifying or vilifying people, we should just focus on their actions. I suspect the existence of Lance’s good deeds somehow gave him permission in his own mind to do the bad. I suspect others will deny the goodness or the heroic nature of things he did because of how reprehensible he acted in lying and personal attacks. I don’t defend him for this, but neither do I denounce him as a person. We are all contradictions; Armstrong just took that to the extreme, and did it publicly.

This is a contradiction we see in everyone, and in life as a whole. There is pain, but there is also beauty. There is honor, but there is also shame. There is death, but there is also birth. You don’t get to choose. Life gives both. We all have both.

Nobody says this better than my favorite songwriter, Bruce Cockburn:

We go crying, we come laughing
Never understand the time we’re passing
Kill for money, die for love
Whatever was God thinking of?

Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That’s the burden of the angel/beast

Rob Lamberts, MD, is a primary care physician practicing somewhere in the southeastern United States. He blogs regularly at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind) where this post first appeared. For some strange reason, he is often stopped by strangers on the street who mistake him for former Atlanta Braves star John Smoltz and ask “Hey, are you John Smoltz?” He is not John Smoltz. He is not a former major league baseball player. He is a primary care physician.

11 replies »

  1. “The sportscaster, along with many I heard talk on the subject, were not as upset by the fact that Armstrong used the banned substances, or his lies on the subject,”

    That’s because in the “Sports World” “heroes” can do no wrong. Is this what we teach our kids?

    “…and he did win the Tour de France multiple times”

    Did he?

    “On top of that, the Livestrong foundation did much to raise money and awareness for cancer and for other significant health issues.”

    He was covering his tracks.

    “Perhaps instead of glorifying or vilifying people, we should just focus on their actions.”

    Aren’t we focusing on Armstrong’s actions now? People want their money back. Give it to them Lance.

  2. @southern doc …

    The harsh and counterproductive thread around the post violated THCB’s community standards and offended Dr. Meador and Ms. Mahar, who requested that it be taken down. In response, THCB will be publishing a set of guidelines for commenters. The general rule, if you write something that would get you thrown out of class or asked to leave a room – or likely trigger a fistfight in the real world – you probably shouldn’t be commenting on THCB. If you’d like to offer input on how we can make discussions on the site better, email the editors or post in this thread.

    You’ll find the original here:


  3. The competition was in establishing the most creatively clandestine and effective cheating and intimidation programme, the bike race was secondary.

  4. Rob, I’ve read so much about Lance in the last few months and have been so exasperated-and really quite confused in terms of how to fairly process what we’ve learned about his actions, his life’s work, etc. A piece today was heralding his story as the model case study of corruption, for example. And sure, perhaps there’s merit in that. But your words and thoughts regarding Lance-and the human character in general-are so balanced. I thank you for the perspective you’ve maintained in this piece and the clarity you provide. Hot-button stories like this tend to strip us of the ability to calmly and fairly process.

  5. Anyone have any idea where the post on psychosomatic medicine has been exiled to?

  6. I have no respect for him in very many areas, and certainly would not trade places with him, but I am just not a fan of painting anyone or anything with a single brush stroke. He is an archetype of extremes, a caricature of contradictions, but he is, in the end, just a person who got lots of power and did both bad and good with it.

  7. What would he have accomplished if he didn’t cheat? The way he used his wealth to go after other people is reprehensible. His charity notwithstanding, I have no respect for him.

  8. Good post, sir. My wife and I saw him win #6 in Paris in 2004. We’ve long followed his career. We both ride. This has been very sour for us. As bad as this tragic drama has been, he’s no Bernie Madoff.

    The lure of the Win-At-All-Cost ethos exacts its due.