Every once in a while comes an athlete who transcends the boundary of his/her discipline and becomes the identity of the sport (I would not say bigger than the sport). And in that athlete’s lifetime comes a performance which defines the greatness. Only, Lance Armstrong had seven of them. Not to mention a Hollywood-esque battle against all odds (read cancer).
Thus it was no surprise that Lance Armstrong became the biggest name in cycling next to the Tour de France (though a sizeable chunk consider his aura even larger). In the course of it all he inevitably made a few enemies, and a fair number of critics. But the way Armstrong polarized the sport and opinions was nothing like cycling (or maybe any sport) had ever seen.
One trait however, that even his staunchest critics agreed on, was that “Lance never said never.” Be it against chemo in the hospital, or on the slopes of the Alpe d’Huez, Armstrong was the epitome of clichés such as “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” So it was a huge shock when he volunteered to back down in his fight with the USADA (United States Anti Doping Agency) about doping allegations against him.
On 24 August, he released a statement blaming the USADA for orchestrating a witch hunt, and leaving him with no reasonable chance of a fair fight. In his own words, “there comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say enough is enough,” and this according to him was enough. The statement instantly sent tremors through multiple organizations and groups. If the debate wasn’t hot enough already, this was like pouring an explosive incendiary substance into the fire.
Within minutes of his statement, opinions started pouring in – tilting decisively either way. That is the main reason I held myself back from writing this post for a couple of weeks. Now having read varying ranges of arguments, allegations, counter allegations, opinions, expert opinions, impassioned opinions; I’m going to add my own. First the facts:
(a) Lance Armstrong won seven straight Tour de France titles between 1999 – 2005. He never once tested positive* (the asterisk is VERY important, and will be elaborated later).
(b) Most top riders, who won anything of importance/made the podium during that era, have been either convicted or have confessed to have doped.
(c) USADA, after a long court battle, have framed their case around “non analytical positives” (I’ll explain what this means) to implicate Mr Armstrong and others (chief among them being his team boss Johan Bruyneel and doctor Michele Ferrari, both of whom continue to fight charges).
(d) Armstrong’s lawsuit against USADA was rejected by a federal judge (following which he decided to stop fighting the case).
Now for the two lines of arguments (I’ll only list the major points), starting with those in favour of the rider:
(a) Lance had 500+ tests and NEVER once returned positive for any performance enhancing substance.
(b) Even if he did dope, so did the entire peloton around him (as evident by the convictions), so that only gave him a fair chance to win. In other words, he had no other option, and it was the mutually accepted norm.
(c) USADA’s case is based solely on “testimonies” by “tainted riders”, most of which have been acquired in return of favours (such as reduced bans). This according to many is an underhanded tactic.
Those against the rider:
(a) He DID test positive (at least twice on record), but his political clout and cronies within the UCI covered it with fake backdated prescriptions. Also he almost always got advance notice of doping controls.
(b) Riders indulging in EPO or blood doping rarely tested positive during the 90s and 2000s, simply because there were no tests then that could detect such materials (the joke was – if you fail a drug test in competition, you have failed an IQ test). Hence few were ever convicted of doping during their time (almost none due to a positive test), with most convictions coming much later, mostly in the form of confessions or testimonies.
(c) USADA is using testimonies not only of the so-called “tainted riders”, but various other qualified people (team masseur, doctors etc) who were part of Armstrong’s team over the years. This is called a “non analytical positive” and is used when technology cannot prove doping; however there is substantial evidence against the athlete having committed the offence. In today’s age of clinical dopers who blatantly and continually lie against any wrong doing, this is a justifiable means (note Marion Jones was convicted of doping in this manner, who never confessed untill she was brought down by testimonies).
So obviously we have two very polarized groups here, who have their own way of looking at the facts. Anyone reading this would in all probabilities join either group (if he/she hasn’t already), so my opinion won’t matter much, however I shall try to simplify the confusion to as best as I can. Speaking personally, I believe Lance doped. I will talk on his legend status later, first let me justify my belief (without any of the above bravado):
(a) The “non analytical positive” is a perfectly legal means of implicating an athlete, with the Marion Jones case being a proven example why it works.
(b) Lance did have phenomenal clout among the UCI and other powers that be in his days (even now to an extent) and the claim that he had 500 tests is sheer exaggeration. He did have close to 250 tests, and twice he tested positive (Le Tour in 1999 and the Tour of Switzerland in 2001), but both times the test was overturned on technicalities.
(c) In the EPO fuelled peloton of the 2000s, it would be a little naïve to imagine a clean rider being able to generate the kind of power required to compete at the top. Even the riders winning today are posting slower times compared to the early 2000s. I don’t think anybody would believe that M/s Wiggins and company are not as capable/talented as their predecessors; hence the times do indicate to some “unknown” factor during the Armstrong era.
Yes all the above might amount to circumstantial evidence, but the one clinching argument that swayed me is what I wrote above – Lance never says never. He has fought these allegations since 1999, and even in his final salvo he took USADA to court – and lost. So backing down when being faced with tangible evidence for the first time can be construed as a tacit admission of guilt (no matter what belligerent words he might use to cover it up). If Lance is indeed clean, he should continue fighting, and win, and sue the USADA. If he is wary of the testimonies, then there is something that he is uncomfortable to expose. And while he may never have tested positive, so didn’t Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Alejandro Valverde and many more who have all since been disgraced.
Anyways as I wrote above, most people have already made up their mind, so this discussion is irrelevant. What matters is the road ahead. Again here are the facts:
(a) USADA have declared Armstrong’s unwillingness to fight as an admission of guilt. They have stripped the rider of all his victories including the seven Tour de France titles, and banned him from competing for life. WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) have expressed their support in upholding the ban.
(b) Cycling’s governing body, UCI, are not pleased with USADA’s actions, as they claim the American agency has no jurisdiction to impose such a ban. UCI are studying the case and might appeal against USADA in CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport).
(c) Tour de France’s organizers, ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation), just seem to be in wait and watch mode.
(d) Johan Bruyneel and Michele Ferrari have not yet backed down from the case and seem to be keen to continue fighting the USADA.
The last point is probably the most important. Lance is retired from the sport, but these two continue to be in a powerful and influential position in cycling, and if found dirty, then it is important they are suitably banned to prevent causing any further damage. As to the ban on Lance, in all probabilities, UCI will take USADA to court (to save face and escape the embarrassing decision of whom to award “those” seven titles) and then it is upto CAS to give a final binding decision on the matter (which I sincerely hope comes soon and puts an end to it).
By deciding not to contest USADA in court, Armstrong has played a neat tactical maneuver. Had the case gone ahead and evidence been made public, there was a big chance his reputation would have been damaged beyond repair. Forever. But now with no case, the evidence stays buried, and the final judgment shall always hang in limbo. This uncertainty in a way absolves Lance from any legal conviction, and thus he may claim to be “innocent unless proven otherwise.”
Again as I wrote above, this smart-alec maneuver (of not contending the case) was the clincher for me to truly believe he had something to hide/be afraid of. By walking off the battle, his PR team may have scored a stalemate typical of astute lawyers, but its unbecoming of a sporting hero. By opting to lay his arms, Lance has cheated the fans out of the truth (whichever way it would have panned out).
USADA chief, Travis Tygart has indicated that he would make all efforts to make much of the evidence public while filing a report to WADA. However even he agrees, it might not have the reach and impact as it would have had being presented as evidence in a public trial. Hence it is all the more important that USADA fights Bruyneel and Ferrari, which would bring the evidence out into the open. One thing is clear, the villain here the UCI, who have long turned a blind eye to mass doping, and the real victim is the hapless fan (and other clean riders who have lost their careers).
As to LIVESTRONG, I believe that is a different aspect of Lance, one that is genuinely laudable, and which continues to be an inspiration. I myself have been guided by his example and determination and proudly wear the yellow wrist band (even now). Yes the charity’s yellow hue harks back to the tainted yellow jerseys, yes there might not have been any LIVESTRONG without the multiple Tour winning Lance, yes the seemingly unbelievable victories is what made millions look upto him; BUT (and a big one), after recent events I think it is time to separate the two. LIVESTRONG is and shall remain a beacon of hope, something Lance Armstrong can be proudly remembered for.
As to his cycling legacy, a black or white decision by CAS (if it gets a chance) will go a long way in determining it for the future. But in all probability despite any verdict, it will continue to be as polarizing as ever. Yes every once in a while comes an athlete who transcends the boundary of his/her sport and becomes the identity of the sport. This time however, we seem to have been offered a mirage, and the results of that are always heartbreaking.
ps: Apart from the links in the post, here are two of the best articles that describe the entire saga in an emotional and analytical manner
Anna Zimmerman pens a moving article on the saga from a hapless fan’s angle, titled – Armstrong applies for martyr status.