What does the fall of Lance Armstrong say about us?

Published: Friday, Aug. 24 2012 8:36 p.m. MDT

Virginia Gowski starts her ride up Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After news broke Thursday that cyclist Lance Armstrong was ending his fight against doping accusations, local cyclists and Armstrong fans were lamenting the fall of an international star.

Others simply said it was another testament to a troubling reality in cycling and professional sports in general: everybody cheats, some get caught.

It's a generalization, but speaks to the effort to find understanding or meaning in the parade of fallen stars accused of cheating, which this month also included Major League Baseball's batting leader, Melky Cabrera of the San Francisco Giants, and a pitcher for the Oakland A's in the steroid-swollen Bay Area.

Michael Timberlake, who teaches sociology of sports at the University of Utah, said that Armstrong is considered a hero by many, including children. But he said research shows children to be more affected by the person pouring the milk than the face staring back on the Wheaties box.

"Kids' role models are usually closer to them, like their parents, fathers and brothers," he said.

Timberlake said that athletes, like people in general, are constantly forced to deal with competing pressures. He said an example in sports is the separation between winning and sportsmanship, which are both admired, and leads to questionable behavior like "flopping" in basketball or "diving" in soccer.

"Technically, that's not good sportsmanship, but it's come to be a norm" Timberlake said. "You have different values in sports and anything you do, and they compete sometimes."

Unlike sports, Timberlake said the rules in regular life are more informal and are based on shared understanding of what actions are right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate or civil and uncivil.

In some cases there are laws to enforce behavior, but often an individual will simply act outside of accepted norms in order to succeed in business, politics or polite society, which results in informal sanctions from the people around them.

"There's strong societal pressures toward conformity," he said.

The norm in cycling has been performance-enhancing drug use, practiced by some of the sport's biggest stars. Does that make it a norm and therefore acceptable to those trying to attain that level of performance?

"The poor guy really has been hammered," Virginia Gowski said of Armstrong, who not only capitalized financially, but is a man who overcame cancer and turned athletic success into Livestrong, benefiting cancer research to the tune of millions of dollars. "If I were him I probably would have given up as well."

Gowski, a Salt Lake mother of three, said her children are too young to be aware of the controversy but it creates an opportunity for parents to discuss the values of fair play, sportsmanship and honesty with their families.

"I think it's a parent's job to teach a lesson with this kind of experience," she said. "Talk about ethics and talk about competition and what's important."

Jamie White, who was biking up Emigration Canyon on Friday, said that in his mind, the issue of doping and performance enhancement through drug use is more of a gray area than other forms of cheating.

He said athletes commonly use diet or vitamin supplements in an effort to gain a competitive edge and the rules of what is and what is not allowed are constantly evolving. Caffeine, for example, was prohibited for cyclists until 2004, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

"I'm not one to condemn," White said. "All those guys dope and it made for some great racing."

In a statement to the Associated Press, Armstrong called the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's investigation an "unconstitutional witch hunt." He said he had ultimately grown weary of fighting the allegations against him, and continues to proclaim his innocence.

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