Lance Armstrong, Doping, and Why Athletes Risk It All

Steroid needle on a trackIn a highly anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey, famed cyclist Lance Armstrong has finally come clean about the allegations of doping that have haunted him for much of his unparalleled career. Armstrong, who in August 2012 was stripped of his record seven Tour de France victories and banned from competitive cycling due to mounting evidence of performance-enhancing drug use, is just one in a long line of athletes—most notably baseball players—who have either confessed to using performance enhancers or whose images have been tarnished by credible allegations of doping.

It’s no secret that many athletes will go to any length for a competitive edge, but performance-enhancing drugs carry numerous health risks, including baldness, impotence, infertility, addiction, psychiatric issues, hypertension, liver problems, and numerous other issues.

In a world where athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs always seem to get caught, often with disastrous consequences for their careers, what would compel an athlete to risk not only his or her health but livelihood as well?

Perfectionism and Pressure to Perform
Competitive sports can be cutthroat. Fans, coaches, and sponsors have high expectations for athletes, and hold in high regard records and never-been-done-before, seemingly superhuman feats. These expectations are frequently unrealistic, but can place considerable pressure on athletes. People in the upper echelons of athletics are often perfectionists to begin with; after all, it’s not easy to make it to the top. These perfectionist tendencies can make performance-enhancing drugs seem not only justified, but necessary.

Particularly when the competition uses performance-enhancing drugs, a dedicated athlete might feel like he or she has no choice. If the competition has an unfair advantage, taking drugs may seem less like cheating and more like leveling the playing field.

Peer Pressure
Particularly as more and more athletes admit to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, it can seem like sport is full of doping. Athletes may experience peer pressure from friends, teammates, and coaches, who may suggest that they can’t keep up with their competitors if they don’t use drugs. Peer pressure can also come in indirect ways. When athletes are criticized by peers, they might feel like their only hope for improvement can come in a vial or pill. Coaches, teammates, and even physicians or trainers may be complicit in doping.

Financial Issues
Not all athletes are wealthy. Particularly among Olympic athletes, financial gain often comes in the form of sponsorships, not from the sport or league. Many athletes spend years paying coaches, trainers, and gyms, and may get deep in debt covering the costs of developing into one of the best at what they do. Athletes are much more likely to get cushy sponsorship deals and contracts when they break records or win competitions. Particularly when an athlete knows or believes that other successful people in his or her field are using performance-enhancing drugs, they might seem like the most attractive or likely way to get out of debt and into financial security.

Although many athletes are regularly drug-tested, dopers try to stay one step ahead of the science. Many athletes have devised novel ways to avoid being caught, and in a high-stakes world, it’s easy to believe you can outsmart the testing mechanisms. Indeed, many athletes have managed to do just that for years, so the risk might seem worth it to an athlete under immense pressure.


  1. Oprah: Lance Armstrong confesses. (2013, January 16). ESPN. Retrieved from
  2. Performance-enhancing drugs: Know the risks. (2012, December 12). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from
  3. Shermer, M. (2008, March 31). The doping dilemma. Scientific American. Retrieved from
  4. Shermer, M. (2009, September 07). Why athletes dope. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

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  • ana

    January 21st, 2013 at 4:45 AM

    I watched the two part interview with lance Armstrong, and while I have to admit that I went into it thinking that I was going to hate him, I came out of it really just feeling sorrty for him and his family. I know that what he did was wrong, and I think that he knows that too. But what struck me the most profoundly is that here is this athlete that so many of us put up on this pedestal, and while I think that a big part of what he did was for his own ego, I honestly think that another part of it was for those of us too who wanted to believe in him. That you can have this terrible thing happen to you at a young age but that you can persevere and come out of it a champion. I know that there are those who are still distrustful and I get that, but I have to take it at face value, trust that he is now telling the truth, and I do wish him and the sport of cycling the very best.

  • Zeta

    January 21st, 2013 at 9:09 AM

    I was so sad about the whole thing when it came out a month or so ago. I was speaking with a German friend about the whole situation, and had zero sympathy for the guy. He broke the rule, and now he has to live with the consequences. What’s so sad about that? Choose the behavior, choose the consequence. If you don’t want the consequence, don’t do the behavior.

  • Abbie Lynn

    January 21st, 2013 at 9:12 AM

    When are entitled people going to realize they can’t have everything the easy way? Oh, that’s right their not. Our society totally buys into that crap.

  • B Davis

    January 21st, 2013 at 9:28 AM

    I think the worst part is the lying.

  • Clancy

    January 21st, 2013 at 11:14 AM

    It is almost impossible for my 12 year old son to have role models. As this article alluded to, many of his baseball heros have been convicted of using illegal substances. Now, Lance Armstrong. My son never admired him all that much-he is more baseball and football than biking. But, it’s just another athlete who thought more of his own rise to the top than the millions of kids who live and breathe sports. How can I tell my son not to cheat on anything-when no one in the sports world seems to be willing to get ahead by good old fashioned work. No, wait-maybe that’s not fair. There are probably millions, but we don’t get to know about them because they don’t make the team or they are bench warmers because those using illegal substances are the starters.

  • Junebug

    January 21st, 2013 at 3:46 PM

    Clancy- you are right, it is hard for them to have role models anymore. That’s why we have to be that for them.
    For these athletes always trying to get one over on the authorities in charge, it’s all about the ego, getting what they think that they deserve. When really all they deserve it to get caught.
    The punishment is harsh that was given to him, but given all the people he has let down and duped and disappointed, don’t you kind of think that he deserves it?

  • teena

    January 21st, 2013 at 11:46 PM

    you might start out all righteous and fair but the people and things around you can change you to a large extent.most of these convicted players have not always cheated and the change in them is proof of how other people and also the willingness to win at any cost can have an influence.

    it is not a healthy thing sure but long term vision is clouded in such a situation from my understanding.maybe all they need is a little reminder every now and then about how these substances and such practices can ruin their career.that might just be enough to make them stop.

  • loren

    January 22nd, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    AAhhh there are so many issues here with Lance Armstrong that it is hard to have them all talked about in a one hour interview or even a short piece on why an athlete of this skill and caliber would choose to throw it all away over something that they know could harm them and their careers. I think that he was right when he talked about a doping culture in the world of competitive cycling and how this drove him to do what he did. But more than that I think that it is this feeling of invincability that so many stars get when they are thrust into the limelight and they feel the love from the rest of the world. He never had this, never had a father, so I am going out on a limb with saying that he needed this kind of adulation and adoration form the world to feed him. I know, that isn’t any kind of excuse, but I think that if we are trying to be objective here and look at all the reasons why he played into this same culture that he probably wasn’t in love with. And now he has lost all of that, all of the love and respect that he ever had, with no real chance of ever getting that back. That’s kind of sad for me when I see just how far the mighty have to fall sometimes to actually get it.

  • Scott Earisman

    January 22nd, 2013 at 9:29 AM

    I like to think about the loss of control as the result of using dysfunctional ways to meet some basic human need or needs. Many athletes are driven by internal or relational needs for mastery, approval, exhilaration, and the like, none of which is, in itself, unhealthy. The depth of the need, the hunger for the feeling or the attachment reward, can be excessive, and that is often a sign of early needs unmet.
    The problems arise when the need is unconscious or experienced as a craving, an obsession. The result is the loss of perspective and control that fells a Lance Armstrong, along with many other of the human species.

  • D.K

    January 22nd, 2013 at 9:39 AM

    Hard to believe how people that persevered and worked so hard to get where they are can get carried away and end up using banned substances. But really, there can never be an excuse for that. They knew what they were doing and did so voluntarily. Harsher penalties should be given out to reduce the occurrence of sports persons being involved with substances!

  • sandy

    January 22nd, 2013 at 12:21 PM

    I have to admit I have cheated in school during the tests. Reason? Parental pressure.

    I can only imagine what kind of pressure these sportsmen of international fame would have. Not trying to defend their actions but when there is so much riding on your performance, so much money and so much fame, it can get tough to stay focused and stay honest.

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