About Lance Armstrong, Legalising Drugs in Sport, Marketing and a Thoroughly Depressing Week

OK, this blog isn’t about marketing, yet. Actually, all will be revealed in due course (probably in Part 2) and we will get on to marketing, but not now. Instead, it’s about this week’s big news, at least for those of us who participate in competitive endurance sports, or those of us whose lives have been touched by cancer, or both: the downfall of Lance Armstrong (or at least what everyone whose head isn’t completely buried in the sand has noticed is his downfall. Admittedly, there are a staggering number of people willfully behaving like complete idiots who appear to be on the loose pretending that no one has proved Lance has done anything wrong at all. Yeah, right.)

For a start I’m just staggered — utterly baffled — that anyone can like Armstrong. And forget the cheating and the drugs because this observation has absolutely nothing to do with the revelations of the past week. I’ve always readily acknowledged his story is inspirational. The way he battled cancer showed impressive tenacity (though he’s hardly unique in demonstrating that…just well publicized). And his cycling performances have certainly been epic (or appeared so until this week, anyway). Luz Ardiden in 2003 was one of the great single sporting days I’ve ever seen.

Proof that cycling doesn’t have to be the Lance way. A real star…and an Olympic Gold. Whether she can dance remains to be seen, though!

But anyone who read either of his books could surely immediately deduce that he was (and is) a pretty vile human being; arrogant, self-obsessed, bullying, misogynistic and closed-minded would be a few conclusions that, frankly, would be very hard to miss. This is a guy with absolutely no sense of proportion or anything close to a normal value-set at all (traits this weeks news have pretty clearly borne out).

When I started reading “It’s Not About The Bike”, as a fan, I went in to find out about my hero. Halfway through, I realized this was not a human being I had much time for at all. So to some extent, on a personal “fan” level, I could care less about the news this week; at best, it simply underlined characteristics that had been blithely obvious to most objective observers of Lance for some time before.

Here’s one question, though: Why is it that the whole cancer thing has resulted in him being able to dupe (even now) a huge number of people (let’s be honest, most people are far more impressed with that than they are with his performances on a bike)? The world of cancer is full of heroes…there are lots of survivors who rage successfully against the illness (and even more people who die with dignity and should command even greater respect). There are many people who raise huge sums for charity (and do it both without publicity and without behaving like a preening peacock in the process.) And, of course, many people dedicate huge chunks of their lives to the public good. Yes, Lance did good things in the fight against cancer but that hardly makes him any better than millions of others. It also doesn’t change the fact that he’s a creep (and, now, a liar). Yeah, a creep with a philanthropic side for sure, but a creep nonetheless.

The only conclusion I draw from this week is that there are an awful lot of people out there who have a pretty low standard when it comes to deciding who belongs on a pedestal! If Lance Armstrong — even before this week — was your idea of a hero, well, good luck… It’s the Power of Marketing, eh?

The second aspect of the bigger story this week that has grabbed my attention is the number of people/media outlets who’ve reacted to Lance by seeking to post-facto legitimize him by asking the question “so, is it time to legitimize drugs in sport?”  In other words, was the system rather than the abuser the real problem? Please, someone, tell me this idea is a not very funny joke.

If you do (legalize drugs in sport), you pretty soon come to realize you’re legitimizing a society where the lowest-common-denominator of anything becomes acceptable. In other words, be careful what you wish for. Whatever you can’t police (at least whatever doesn’t cause harm to innocent people like, say, the extreme examples of theft or murder), you let go whether it’s morally wrong or not because setting low standards makes for an easier to manage society than having reasonable or respectable ones.

The moral question is important. Legalization of drugs in athletic competition boils down to answering the question “what do we want our sports to be?” What are we prepared to watch? What do we judge as entertaining? I am not saying the use of drugs is right or wrong here on a moral level…I am simply saying that on a base level, many of us would define a competition we would pay to watch as being one that begins with a level playing field. If sports are drug free then the best athlete wins (and that is what I want to watch take place.) If drugs are legalized, then the country with the best medical system or the largest pharmaceutical support budget wins, and I have little interest in that.

To cite an obvious example, for how long do you think Kenyan and Ethiopian runners would dominate the marathon if Western runners could legitimately put drug technology at their disposal. Would a race in which an American or English marathoner won because the US team had a huge drug budget which eliminated the physiological gap be something you’d want to see? Would you really consider the drugged athlete from a wealthy nation a better runner than his impoverished third-world equivalent? I realize I’m taking some liberties with the example this scenario provides, but you’ll get my point.

Furthermore, drugs are drugs. They may have positive effects (on illness, performance, or both), but they also have negative effects many of which may only become apparent over time. Is it morally right, in the pursuit of something relatively unimportant (sporting success) that the system should encourage athletes to take risks with their health? For me, the answer is “no”. Something that makes you better cannot be condoned if, in another way, it might also make you worse. The long-term side effects of chemotherapy are acceptable because the alternative is often death. But the long-term side effects of steroids, say, are not acceptable if the alternative is simply being a slightly less good shot putter. (They may be acceptable to the individual, but it is up to society to take that poor choice away from him, in my opinion).

The potential for ethical violations here is huge, and again we go back to the more impoverished third world countries. Want to bet a pharmaceutical company at some point wouldn’t offer a “test drug” to a nation that couldn’t afford approved ones? In fact, the “ethics” of drug testing is an entire blog in itself. Hint: the pharma giants don’t have a great track record when it comes to probity. You can see horrendous outcomes all too easily under the legitimize drugs scenario, with third world athletes becoming guinea pigs for first world pharmaceutical programmes.

Anyway, back to marketing. What the Armstrong saga this week really proves is that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, the long-held maxim that it therefore probably is a duck is no longer true. Sadly, it seems that we really do live in an age where perception is reality. The evidence is secondary. In the next blog, I’ll look at the power that fact puts in our – as marketers – hands. And I’ll ask whether any of us do much to police ourselves (or whether “that’s not my job” is an easier response).

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