Lance Armstrong: It’s about the bike, not the boosters

| Shuaib Manjra
Lance Armstrong appears in the 2009 Tour of California. Photo by Anita Ritenour. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The name Armstrong dominated the past week’s headlines. Neil remained a public hero until his end. Lance’s drug infested career came home to roost. However the level of public support demonstrated for Lance Armstrong, as evidenced in website comments and polls, has been surprising.

That such support seeks to discount the compelling doping allegations against him underlines his iconic status in the eyes of the public–both for his athletic prowess as well as his courage as a cancer survivor. In fact these are not allegations anymore. They amount to an uncontested conviction in view of Armstrong’s decision not to participate in the adjudication process. Moreover the charge is not one of a simple doping offence or inadvertently taking a supplement or cough remedy. It is one of a carefully planned and executed systematic doping programme using sophisticated drugs and methods over nearly a decade that involved a team of experts. David Walsh who has written four books on Armstrong calls it “the greatest, most sophisticated doping conspiracies in the history of sport”.

The first big question is why Lance Armstrong, not known to walk away from a fight, declined the adjudication of an independent tribunal that clearly has no beef with him, but rather would rule on the basis of the evidence before them. Here was an opportunity for him to publicly clear his name once and for all. The answer is contained simply in Marks Twain’s adage: “It is better to have people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Armstrong’s refusal to participate in the process allows him to invoke doubt and conspiracy and masquerade as a victim. Otherwise, with the evidence so compelling against him, it will unequivocally confirm to the world the veracity of the charges, with witness after witness unravelling the doping conspiracy–“fact-by-fact, piece-by-piece”–thereby breaking the once sacred omerta and crushing Armstrong’s veneer of sanctity. In attempting to protect what remains of his legacy, Armstrong has decided to operate in the murky waters of doubt and conspiracy, using his iconic status as a cyclist and cancer survivor to ride public sentiment and create a virtue out of his cop-out.

The current evidence against Armstrong derives from two sources. The first is that a dozen of his former team-mates and support team gave evidence that Armstrong was centrally involved in systematic doping in the teams that he was involved in. He either admitted to them, or they directly observed him using (and encouraged them to use) erythropoietin (EPO), blood transfusion, cortisone, testosterone and human growth hormone from 1996 to 2005. For this Armstrong was charged by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) with possession, distribution, use, administration and trafficking in prohibited substances. Additionally he was charged with assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting, covering up and other complicity in anti-doping rule violations. These are serious charges–where aggravating circumstances were invoked by agency in slapping him with a life-time ban.

Additionally, scientific data points to evidence of Armstrong’s use of blood manipulation including EPO or blood transfusions during his comeback to cycling in the 2009 Tour de France. This scientific evidence is based on laboratory results that compared his samples taken against his ‘biological passport’–a biological profile constructed over time using a range of results of his personal parameters. It is the equivalent of a physiological fingerprint.

These allegations are not new; Armstrong was always surrounded by smoke. Reports from French anti-doping agencies point to past positive tests that were covered up or that Armstrong was warned prior to being tested. Eight years ago the French anti-doping laboratory, in a retroactive analysis using new technology, detected evidence of EPO in an analysis of Armstrong’ stored samples. Floyd Landis fingered him a few years ago in an interview with US Federal authorities. In 1999, the year of his first Tour win, it is alleged that he “bullied” a young French cyclist, Christophe Bassons who raised concerns about doping on the Tour. Emma O’Reilly, team masseuse reported that that she had heard team officials discussing how to get round Armstrong’s positive test for steroids, and described how she was asked to travel to Spain to deliver “material” across the French border.

However Armstrong’s’ political power and spin-machinery allow him to deflect these issues. The International Cycling Union (UCI) probably allowed him to supersede the sport. He even appropriated yellow, the colour of the Tour’s leader’s jersey, for the Livestrong campaign.

Does Armstrong’s claim that he was tested over 500 times but never returned a positive test present a compelling case for his innocence? The limitations of anti-doping agencies in detecting prohibited substances through sample collection are well known. We return a 1-2% positive rate where notionally we believe that at least 10 to 20% of elite athletes are doping. Olympic Gold medallist Marion Jones was tested as much as Armstrong but did not return a single positive test. She was banned as a result of the BALCO scandal which uncovered systematic doping, largely by United States athletes, using “designer steroids” that avoided detection. These drugs were only discovered through a whistle-blower and good intelligence work. Bernard Kohl who came third in the 2008 Tour de France and subsequently tested positive, opened up his doping diary to the anti-doping authorities in an act of penance. In a scientifically designed doping programme aimed at maximally enhancing performance and avoiding detection Kohl’s case was instructive. He admitted to using blood transfusions, EPO, anabolic steroids, cortisone, human growth hormone, insulin-like growth factors, HCG, thyroid hormone, designer testosterone and plasma expanders in a planned programme. Kohl was tested over 200 times but tested positive only once when he probably deviated from his doping schedule! Thus not testing positive is not equal to not doping; it simply attests to the sophistication of the dopers. Armstrong, Kohl and others were advised by a host of scientists–including the two doctors banned from sport for life–and carefully monitored for adverse consequences and to avoid detection

Thus in recognising the limitations of sample testing, anti-doping agencies internationally are investing more resources in the “biological passport” programme and into intelligence collection. The successful prosecution of Armstrong can be attributed to this paradigm shift. Also importantly the singular determination of Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA, needs to be commended. He steered this investigation through threats, political pressure and personal attacks to ensure that justice would prevail. USADA also benefitted from the information gathered by US federal investigator Jeff Novitzky who led the US Federal investigation into Armstrong, a case that was unexpectedly dropped.

While Armstrong has retired from cycling, his lifetime ban will affect his new career as an elite triathlete. He will be unable to participate, compete, coach or be involved in any organised sport for the rest of his life. By not taking up his opportunity to face a tribunal he has also waived his right to an appeal process. Also being stripped of these titles would logically require the prize money to be returned. How this pans out would make interesting reading. Attempting to reconfigure the winners of all these events will also be a difficult task. Event organisers could leave a lasting legacy to this sorry saga by leaving blank the winner’s name of the events where Armstrong’s is erased.

This is certainly not the end of the legal process. Much more is to come. Not least of all because his former team manager Johan Bruyneel and his trainer Dr Michele Ferrari have decided to proceed with their respective cases which will continue to throw light on the history of Armstrong.

It is really disappointing that the UCI entered the fray in challenging USADA’s jurisdiction. This was probably an attempt to protect the sport of cycling rather than ensure its ethical pursuit. The Tour’s recent history has certainly not been a good one, with Landis, Contador and Schleck sullying its present. Armstrong has done far worse for its past and for his legacy, built on questionable foundations. Hopefully this becomes a salutary lesson for future champions.

Whatever the outcome, Armstrong’s legacy lays in ruins. Those who continue to support him should finally realise that it should be about the bike and not the boosters. And that they have been taken for a ride!

Dr Shuaib Manjra is the chairman of the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport.

TOPICS:  Sport

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