Lance Armstrong & pro-cycling - simply the face of 21st century corporate sport?

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: August 25, 2014

About Professor Simon Chadwick

Professor Simon Chadwick set-up and edits The Scorecard. He is Director of CIBS (Centre for the International Business of Sport) at Coventry University, where he works as Professor of Sport Business Strategy and Marketing.  Simon tweets via Prof_Chadwick 

That’s now pretty much the full set of Armstrong-related reading for me; I have just finished Wheelmen by Wall Street Journal journalists, Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell. This sits alongside my earlier reading of books by the likes of David Walsh, Tyler Hamilton, and David Miller.

Oh, and also the best sellers generated by the Lance Armstrong franchise, such as ‘It’s Not About the Bike – My Journey Back to Life’.

The story’s plot and main characters remain the same and having read so much on the subject, I now have a good idea of who said and did what, and why. However, no matter which angle from which you read about professional cycling over the last two decades, the experience is never comfortable or pretty.

At this point, my feeling is that I should write something damning about Lance Armstrong and his transgressions, misdemeanours – call them what you will. Yet commenting on him seems almost irrelevant. To criticise Armstrong would be like criticising a faceless global corporation that somehow most people can never quite seem to touch, influence or change.

Put another way, having read so many books, Armstrong is largely portrayed as being more like a corporate machine than a professional cyclist, so why bother commenting on him as a person?

Instead, I thought I should summarise my thoughts on what I feel are the lessons to be learned from the Armstrong case and those associated with it. Before doing so though, when thinking about Lance, the UCI, Nike, professional cycling et al., it struck me that these are not just cycling’s problems.

Indeed for every doping case in cycling, there’s a fixing case somewhere else; for every unscrupulous businessman associated with a professional bike team, there is also a questionable individual involved in some other sport.

So, my observations are not simply about some guy from Austin, Texas who took control of world cycling, it is about a multitude of other sports that are similarly afflicted by what sadly appears to be a common and too prevalent set of issues. Forget the man in question these are the real issues:


In too many sports, this has become a major issue. At one level, it concerns the growing influence that commercial parties have on sport. In the Armstrong case, several global corporations knew what the rider was doing but said and did nothing until they were ultimately forced to do so by circumstances. At another level, the corporatisation of sport can be interpreted as the reduction of sport to a form of industrial process, a production line if you – maximising outputs while minimising inputs. Again, in the Armstrong case, what abides in one’s mind having read extensively around it is that cycling ceased to be about love or passion, it was simply a transaction, a process, a focus for ambition and success. In which case, this poses a question: how do we want our sport to be?

Morality driven by markets and money

Linked to the last point, what an analysis of the Armstrong case reveals is that stakeholder decisions were driven by the morality of markets and money, and not by some absolute moral sense of right and wrong. Not only did Nike apparently do nothing, but neither did Oakley, Nissan, Trek and more. It was only when the net really began to close around Armstrong that corporate and commercial partners began to act. While one can understand the need for corporations to protect what are often hefty investments, the apparent silence around (and indeed support for) Armstrong appeared to betray moral principles in favour of protecting financial interests. As such, one has to ask: are we (the stakeholders in sport) really so wrapped-up in our desire for success and glory that we are prepared to compromise both our personal and our societies’ moral codes?


It would be easy to blame Armstrong, or Nike, or anyone else named in books for the case, but what is especially telling is that too many people apparently knew but said and did nothing. No matter which of the above books one might chose to consult, each author stresses that riders knew, team managers knew, sponsors knew, race organisers knew, the governing body knew, the media knew – all were aware of what was happening with Armstrong and those around him, yet nobody did anything. Such complicity strongly implies profound deficiencies in terms of openness and transparency, but also in the receptiveness of sport to practices such as whistle-blowing. In which case, the next question to ask is: as we are all stakeholders in sport, to what extent are we prepared to tolerate or accept such complicity (and, indeed, be part of it)?

Poor governance standards

Complicity and transparency immediately raise a series of governance issues, which cycling and many others sports must get to grips with. While it might seem unimaginable that a governing body could take payment from a team or athlete to remain silent about a positive drugs test, this is precisely the inference presented to readers of the books mentioned above. One therefore has to question whether sports governing bodies are fit and appropriate for purpose. Furthermore, one is left to ask if the people making and receiving such payments are fit and proper people to be involved in sport. Much has been made of ‘fit and proper people’ tests applied to sports such as English football, but when the boss of a cycling team allegedly advocates and supports doping in their team, then surely a broader debate is needed about the people involved in sport and the way in which they govern both it and their interests in it?

Competition design

One final point, particularly related to cycling but nevertheless related to other sports too. When the Tour de France first began, some stages lasted 19 hours. Thankfully, stages are much shorter now although a cyclist’s day is still a long one. Stages can be 150 kilometres long or more and the average speed of riders can head towards 40 kilometres an hour. Add to the schedule transit times, warm-ups and warm-downs, media appearances, sponsor commitments and so forth, and a cyclist’s day can be a long and tiring one. Still, the longer the stage and the longer the day, the more there is for broadcasters to show, for spectators to watch, for sponsors to entertain around, and for partners to market in conjunction with. In this context, one has to question the design and format of competitions – are we prepared to accept, for instance, shorter stages and slower speeds knowing that it could potentially reduce problems such as doping?



Wheelmen starts by noting how individuals with direct experience of mass doping under old communist regimes came to work in the United States and, subsequently, cycling there. Some people might be inclined to see doping as the result of authoritarian, communist regimes. However, what plays out in the book is a very clear indictment of capitalism as the driver of widespread doping. It is therefore important to note that it is not one political system or another that is responsible for doping. Rather, it is a problem brought about by people, athletes and their desire for success.