Lance Armstrong – A Mother’s View

I watched the first part of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong and read about the second part. I want to share some thoughts I have about this interview as a mother.

Oprah began with a series of “yes” or “no” questions related to Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs during his medal winning years and his awareness that he was lying every time he denied these claims by friends and unrelated folks alike. His answer to each question was “yes.”

My eyes began to fill with tears. I knew what the answers would be based on prior news reports. But I cried anyway. What was that about? Was I sad because Lance Armstrong is a fallen hero? I had worn the Live Strong bracelet for years. Or was this more personal in some way?

I continued to listen. Armstrong said that his truth telling now comes too late. He will be paying for it the rest of his life. He also said, he didn’t realize “how big” his influence was. He didn’t realize until lately how much anger, disappointment, and betrayal the rest of us felt because of his actions.

Why did he lie in the first place and continue to repeat the lies? He said that he was swept away by the momentum of the “picture” of a happy marriage, kids, and seven Tour de France championships. He lost himself.

Behind the “picture” he was using EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, and other performance enhancing drugs. He said he was not afraid of getting caught because he knew the drug tests, at the time, were not sophisticated enough to catch him. He was fearless in attacking the people who suggested he had used drugs and he often sued them as well.

Oprah questioned Armstrong’s control over other members of his cycling teams. He denied verbal directives to team members to use drugs, but did not deny the power of his example or the power of the “culture of drug use.” Somewhat defensively, Armstrong said that it was not possible to win “in that generation” without doping.

Doping did not feel wrong to him at the time. It did not make him feel bad. It did not feel like cheating.

Of particular interest to me was his comment that he would not be sitting in the interview with Oprah Winfrey if he had not returned to the sport of cycling after retiring. (Armstrong retired after his 7th Tour de France win in 2005, but returned to compete in 2009.)… Did that mean he would never have told us the truth? Does that mean he could have lived out the rest of his life under the shadow of his lies and lives he destroyed?

Lying disturbs me deeply – as members of my family will attest.

Have you ever known a child who lied repeatedly despite clear evidence in each case that his or her words were untrue? Have you ever tried to keep a child from lying by removing privileges and/or beloved possessions or holding discussions with the child about the hazards of lying — but the child continues to lie? Have you ever sought professional help to turn a child away from the habit of lying but to no avail? Have you ever stayed up nights worrying about what you did or didn’t do to “create” this lying problem? Have you sought out the counsel of family, friends, or professionals to try and understand the error of your ways? As an adoptive parent, have you ever wondered: Is this child’s lying problem genetically programmed or am I trying to pass the buck by even considering that question? I can answer “yes” to all the foregoing questions.

Yes. Lance Armstrong’s confessions did feel personal to me. But could I learn anything from him?  In short:

1. Some people don’t stop lying until there is irrefutable proof of those lies.

2. Some people don’t stop lying – even when there is proof – if they have enough power or community support to continue the lies.

3. The liar lives in a bubble of self-importance, failing to recognize the lives around him/her that are impacted by his/her lies.

But Armstrong said he was happier “today” – confessing to Oprah Winfrey on national television – than he has been for a long time.

4. Even seasoned liars are worn out by hiding the truth. Perhaps, facing the consequences of lying turns out to be less painful than living with the lies after all.

When I think about the child with whom I have struggled most on this issue of lying, I realize that he, too, lied to protect an image of himself that wasn’t true. It was little things at first: chores or homework that he didn’t do but said he did. We relied on his word and he perpetuated the lies to avoid punishment. He lived in a world of his own self-importance and failed to recognize how the rest of his family or his community counted on his telling the truth. No matter how many times we repeated it, he failed to grasp that telling the truth and taking the consequences for failing to do an assignment was far less painful or long-lasting than losing the trust of the people he loved.

As my child became a teenager, lying became more dangerous. But like Armstrong, he spent most of his day in a community that supported his “habit.” In that environment, the lies got him the good stuff – the attention of girls, acceptance with the boys, and the freedom from the hard work that academic achievement requires.  It was easier to continue painting a “picture” of himself that wasn’t true.  

Again and again – like the reporters, researchers, and officials investigating Armstrong – we parents ferretted out the truth and presented our child with it. Was that enough to make him stop?

Not really. It wasn’t until we moved him into a different community – a community that valued the truth, a community where success in school and friendships with peers depended on being honest – that he really began to change. And his step grew lighter. His smiles became more frequent. His efforts at schoolwork increased. The issue hasn’t gone away completely, but his tendency to cover his tracks with something other than the truth is definitely improved.

Maybe some of us are wired to lie – or more inclined to lie – if lying gets us what we think we want without doing the hard mental, physical, spiritual, and/or emotional work that most of life requires. Because I have such an aversion to lying, I’ve had to ask myself: Does that mean a “natural born liar” is less worthy?

No. I don’t think so. I think it points out that we humans have different strengths and weaknesses. I think it means that when you discover a weakness – whether your child’s or your own – you need to surround that child or yourself with a community that helps to strengthen the weakness.

I can think of many, many examples: (1) the alcoholic who joins A.A. and surrounds him/herself with those in recovery; (2) the 90 lb. weakling who joins the wrestling team; (3) the person of little faith who signs up for a Bible study; (4) the poor math student who hires a tutor; (5) the disorganized wo/man who chooses a partner with great organizational skills. In time, the alcoholic may become a sponsor for another alcoholic. The 90 lb. wrestler may become a muscled winner. The person of little faith may one day go into ministry. The poor math student may decide to become a teacher. And the disorganized wo/man may learn to organize his/her sock drawer!

It’s not a bad thing to be weak. It’s a bad thing to let the weakness control your life. We parents seem to have, as one of our responsibilities, the duty to uncover the weaknesses of our children and to surround them with the influences that will make them strong. We have an obligation to do that for ourselves as well.  It is a sad, sad thing that Lance Armstrong was so talented, so powerful, so wealthy, and so well respected that it took a mountain of evidence and  witnesses and many years to bring him to the truth.  And, I suspect – as a mother – it will require a community that continues to demand the truth to keep him honest the next time it would be easy to lie.

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