Ethics and Armstrong

Perhaps pro cycling can be seen as some sort of ethical proxy for society.  A sort of moral canary, warning us of when our behaviour is becoming too toxic.  Over its hundred plus years of history the nationalism that contributed to WW2 was also evident in the peleton.

The win at all costs attitudes of the 90’s too permeated the peleton and, as in the wider society, coincided with technical advances which meant that individuals willing to ignore ethical constraints could go further and faster, and cause far more collateral damage than ever before.

Professional cycling has always been a tough sport and has therefore motivated a higher level of creative “preparation” than almost any other sport, from the earliest days.  In the 1990s pharmaceutical companies developed a synthetic form of EPO as a blood booster particularly for use in kidney disease and cancer.  It was not long before a few doctors were exploring alternative markets for these products  

It was great to believe in Lance Armstrong. The sensational comeback story, the commitment and the intensity.  Armstrong came into cycling at a time when drug use, in particular EPO was rife.  A few years previously sport doctors had worked out that blood played a bigger role in endurance sports than muscles.  If they could boost the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity they could boost performance.

With no test available and a governing body with two blind eyes cycling became a contest of who was willing to take (and pay for) the greatest risks with their health.  Boosting the bloods oxygen capacity also makes it thicker, the thicker it is the harder it is to pump and several pro cyclists died in their sleep, when their slowly beating hearts just couldn’t keep moving the gloop.

In response cyclists started setting alarm clocks to wake them in the night so that they could jog up and down the hotel corridors to keep the blood moving. in 1997, still with no test for EPO, the UCI (the governing body of cycling) introduced an arbitrary 50% hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells) level to protect cyclists health. Bjarne Riis, who won the Tour de France in 1996 was known in the pro peleton as “Mr 60%”.

This was the world to which Lance Armstrong returned in 1999 after advanced cancer had nearly killed him.  He was already a gifted and exceptional athlete, cancer had caused him to loose considerable weight (a big advantage when cycling up mountains) and gain even more extraordinary determination.  He was, apparently a man in a big hurry to prove himself and not too fussy about the methods used to achieve it.

His strategy involved getting the best (corrupt) sports doctors available to innovate a cocktail of performance and recovery enhancers.  To take these himself and also to ensure that his top team mates took them as well, so that they would have the strength and endurance to support him, particularly in the mountains.  And to make sure he didn’t get caught he personally enforced the code of silence, the omerta with intimidation and allegedly also bought off others who might expose him or the team.  Anyone who did speak up or try to was subjected to abuse, intimidation and character assassination.

Finally a test for EPO was developed and it’s popularity diminished slightly in the peleton to be replaced by blood transfusions, it is only in the last few years that the Tour has begun to look more like a race between athletes and not pharmacists.  Crucial climbs are now ridden considerably more slowly than they once were, in spite of better bikes and better training.

Cycling has turned a corner and continues to inspire with courageous individuals speaking up and telling the painful and ugly truth about the sport they love and the lives they are not proud of (David Millar and Tyler Hamilton in particular).

The parallels with our wider society are easy to spot, the greed is good, win at all costs 90’s leading both to the collusion between bankers and regulators, leading to our present global turmoil.

Society’s attitudes to integrity and authenticity have changed both in cycling, in business and in government.  We expect far higher standards of behaviour today than we did twenty years ago.  Cycling is cleaning up it’s culture with, sometimes painful honesty.

I look forward to the unexpurgated telling of the bankers tale of the credit crunch, by insiders and the consequent cultural shifts in politics and finance.

Do you think it will happen?

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Neil Crofts
authentic business
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About Neil Crofts

Writer, coach and consultant on authentic business and authentic leadership. Neil has inspired and motivated hundreds organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written three published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a coach, facilitator and consultant helping people and businesses find their authentic purpose and use it to inspire and motivate them to be everything that they can be. Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish. Neil has been independent for over 10 years and delivered his Authentic Leadership message to a diverse range of business audiences including people at BP, Shell, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, MSN, Jamie Oliver, South Gloucestershire Council, National Blood Transfusion Service, KaosPilots Business School, Fashion company By Malene Birger, German technology company Eleven.
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1 Response to Ethics and Armstrong

  1. Nice summary – thanks! Do I think it will happen? Yes, but it will be different.

    Different because of the blurred lines in the banking world. There are clear rules (not guidelines, ethics or moral views) about drugs in the cycling world, and by most accounts Armstrong broke those rules. Many of his team-mates are now spilling the beans and the big picture is emerging. There are clear rules in the banking world too, and there are high-profile instances of those rules being broken (Nick Leeson, for example). Kweku Adoboli is facing charges right now, in what seems to be a clear-cut breach of the rules.

    But there are plenty of instances where it isn’t as clear-cut, and where rules don’t seem to have been broken. We all expect our pension funds to prosper, and we chase decent interest rates on our savings. Underpinning much of that, the bankers are expected to perform well – not just for themselves personally, but for their portfolios too. We expect them to take risks, and we indirectly employ them to do that on our behalf. We’re just not very good (generally) at understanding or quantifying those risks. It’s not rule-breaking; it’s finding an edge.

    After the crash of 2008 we started to hear the “inside story” about what went on in Lehman Brothers – and there was no shortage of people willing to tell their side of the story. Where rules were broken, it’s usually clear who was at fault. The difficulty we have is that so often, rules weren’t broken. Pushing the boundaries became just a bit too aggressive, a bit too risky. When the memoirs are published, one person’s “aggressive” is another person’s “foolishness” or “wrong-doing”.

    So although I’m sure we’ll see many more unexpurgated telling of bankers’ tales, I don’t think it will have the effect of any seismic shifting in politics or finance. We’ll all be shocked at the revelations, but we won’t be unanimous in our expectation of what must follow. Tighter regulation; clearer rules; tougher consequences – probably. But we’re all still going to employ those experts to deliver results for our pensions and interest rates.

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