For elite athletes, competition is like a drug. How many times have we seen professional or Olympic athletes retire (or say they will retire), only to return again, inevitably older and with varying levels of success? For every Michael Jordan, who said he had played his last game — three times — and was still able to lead his team to league championships after coming out of retirement the first time, there are dozens of formerly great athletes whose decision to return only exposes how human they are. Brett Favre’s flirtations with retirement are so frequent it’s hard to keep track, hockey great Mario Lemieux retired in 1997 but laced on his skates again just three years later, and Deion Sanders retired from his dual careers in professional baseball and football, only to pick up the pigskin again several years later. And Lance Armstrong? After years of adamantly insisting he had not used performance-enhancing drugs to win seven Tour de France titles, he’s reportedly fessed up to Oprah…presumably because he can’t stand being out of the competitive loop.
Still training as if he’s preparing for cycling’s biggest race, Armstrong could have gone quietly into the retirement night. But facing a lawsuit from a former teammate that he used public money to buy doping products, Armstrong is apparently hoping for some leniency in the lifetime ban from the sport that the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) imposed last summer, along with revoking his Tour de France titles, in exchange for his decision not to contest the doping charges the agency filed against him. Maintaining his innocence at the time, Armstrong left the question of did-he-or-didn’t-he officially unanswered, presumably for perpetuity (although that wasn’t the case in the court of public opinion). But according to the Wall Street Journal, Armstrong met with Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA in December in an effort to lift the ban so he could continue his athletic career as an endurance athlete competing in triathlons. Tygart apparently told Armstrong that if he came clean, he could expect his lifetime ban to be reduced to eight years. Armstrong angrily responded: “There’s one person who holds the keys to my redemption, and that’s me,” and walked out of the meeting.
David Howman, director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, agrees that nothing short of a complete confession from Armstrong is necessary before he would even consider any leniency on the ban. “Only when Mr. Armstrong makes a full confession under oath — and tells the anti-doping authorities all he knows about doping activities — can any legal and proper process for him to seek any reopening or reconsideration of his lifetime ban commence,” he said in a written statement.
Why couldn’t Armstrong live with the longer ban and stripped titles? Why compete in triathlons rather than make the rounds on the speaking circuit or continue his admirable efforts in raising awareness and funding for cancer research? On a practical level, sports stars miss the training and the structure that competing lent to their lives. Plus there’s the feel-good factor: winners bask in the public’s adulation, which isn’t forthcoming when sports are played far from the limelight.
And for athletes at the top of their game, competing can be an act of self-affirmation, says Gavin Kilduff, an assistant professor of management at New York University who studies competition and rivalry. “His identity is probably very strongly tied to competing in endurance events,” says Kilduff. “He’s not living out how he sees himself if he’s not doing that. For highly competitive people, it’s hard to stay away.” Not long ago, he tweeted a photo of himself relaxing on his sofa with his yellow prize jerseys festooned on the wall: “Back in Austin and just layin’ around.”
In fact, Kilduff says that the very nature of intense competition, and the features that make the best competitors, may explain not just Armstrong’s yen to feel the adrenaline rush of racing again, but the seeming incongruity of athletes who cheat. Certainly the drive to win can, on the one hand, be an inspiration for achieving excellence. “Elite athletes are elite because they can’t stand being average,” says Matt Rhea, an associate professor at A.T. Still University in Arizona and the president of RaceRx, a private sports conditioning and performance-enhancement company. Competition also motivates people to work harder, as Rhea found in a 2003 study he conducted of weightlifters. When amateur athletes performed both in front of bystanders and competed against others, they lifted about four pounds more than during training sessions. “We have measured a dramatic increase in performance during competition, which is one reason why so many records are broken at the Olympics,” says Rhea. “You don’t want to be an average Tour de France cyclist; you want to be the greatest. That’s what makes these athletes so unique and driven.”
But that same drive also tends to promote higher levels of unethical behavior, justified by the win-at-all-costs mentality, which isn’t just confined to athletics. In academia, the most competitive students are more likely to cheat.
So in the end, it’s likely that the very characteristics that made Armstrong a good athlete — the discipline to train, the unconditional commitment to achieving a goal, and the single-minded trust that he would succeed — may have fueled his doping and, ironically, his need to confess in order to regain his status as a competitor. “In their efforts to be viewed as legendary, they at times might cross the line when it comes to the law or to the rules of sport,” says Rhea. “Once you’ve experienced the thrill of victory, it’s really hard to go back to the agony of defeat.”