Something old, nothing new, lots of hearsay turns fans blue – yes, it’s Lance again

Armstrong, for so long the attacker, is now on the defensive (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Yet again, the focus of the cycling world switches away from the racing which is currently taking place on both sides of the Atlantic on to a 39-year old retiree and questions about his past. That’s right, folks, Lance Armstrong is once again at the eye of the storm, after Tyler Hamilton stated in a to-be-broadcast interview on US national TV that he had seen his former team leader inject himself with EPO during the 1999 Tour de France, the first of the American’s seven consecutive Tour triumphs.

Hamilton, who rode on Armstrong’s US Postal team and supported him in his first three Tour wins between 1999 and 2001, has already been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating the use of performance-enhancing drugs in cycling.

In his interview with the CBS news programme 60 Minutes (which will be broadcast on Sunday), he claims that both he and Armstrong had injected themselves with the banned blood booster erythropoietin (EPO) during the 1999 race:

I saw [EPO] in his refrigerator … I saw him inject it more than one time like we all did. Like I did, many, many times.

Hamilton sent out the following email to family and friends yesterday, detailing the maelstrom which was about to unfold:

Dear Everybody,

I hope this finds you all doing well.

First of all, sorry for sending this out as a group letter. If there was any way I could come visit each of you individually, I would. I hope we are together soon.

There’s no easy way to say this, so let me just say it plain: on Sunday night you’ll see me on “60 Minutes” making a confession that’s overdue. Long overdue.

During my cycling career, I knowingly broke the rules. I used performance-enhancing drugs. I lied about it, over and over. Worst of all, I hurt people I care about. And while there are reasons for what I did — reasons I hope you’ll understand better after watching — it doesn’t excuse the fact that I did it all, and there’s no way on earth to undo it.

The question most people ask is, why now? There are two reasons. The first has to do with the federal investigation into cycling. Last summer, I received a subpoena to testify before a grand jury. Until that moment I walked into the courtroom, I hadn’t told a soul. My testimony went on for six hours. For me, it was like the Hoover dam breaking. I opened up; I told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And I felt a sense of relief I’d never felt before — all the secrets, all the weight I’d been carrying around for years suddenly lifted. I saw that, for me personally, this was the way forward.

The second reason has to do with the sport I love. In order to truly reform, cycling needs to change, and change drastically, starting from the top. Now that I’m working as a coach, I see young people entering the sport with hopes of making it to the top. I believe that no one coming into the sport should have to face the difficult choices I had to make. And before the sport can move forward, it has to face the truth.

This hasn’t been easy, not by a long shot. But I want to let you know that I’m doing well. The coaching business is more fun and fulfilling than I’d ever imagined, and Tanker and I are loving our Boulder life. I recently turned 40, and my friends threw the best 80’s themed surprise party in the history of the world (hey, most of you were there!). Life is good.

Again, I just want to say I’m sorry, and that I hope you can forgive me. What matters to me most are my family and friends. I’m deeply grateful for all your support and love through the years, and I’m looking forward to spending time with all of you again, hopefully soon. My Mom and Dad always told me that the truth would set me free. I never knew how right they were.

Armstrong’s immediate response came via Twitter:

20+ year career. 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case.

This was then followed up by a more comprehensive statement by his legal representatives, which pulled no punches:

Tyler Hamilton just duped the CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes and Scott Pelley all in one fell swoop. Hamilton is actively seeking to make money by writing a book, and now he has completely changed the story he has always told before so that he could get himself on 60 Minutes and increase his chances with publishers. But greed and a hunger for publicity cannot change the facts. Lance Armstrong is the most tested athlete in the history of sports. He has passed nearly 500 tests over twenty years of competition.

Two sides of the same story

As has always been the case when fresh suspicions surrounding Armstrong enter the public domain, the cycling community immediately split into two camps. (For what it’s worth, I sit somwhere between the two.)

There are those who say this is the final nail in Armstrong’s coffin. They say there is no smoke without fire. They will point to Armstrong’s alleged failed drugs tests at the 1999 Tour and 2001 Tour de Suisse, and subsequent cover-ups by cycling’s authorities, including the most senior figures at the UCI, who were supposedly desperate to avoid such a big scandal so soon after the Festina affair of 1998. They will say that another ex-teammate, Floyd Landis, also made similar accusations a year ago.

Then there are the loyal Armstrong apologists who laugh it off as yet more unsubstantiated evidence from a witness who has everything to gain from the publicity and is hardly a paragon of virtue himself, having previously served a two-year ban for blood doping. Just as they rubbished Landis as the only man to have been disqualified for a doping offence after winning the Tour de France.

One camp is probably right, the other probably wrong. But, despite the vehement protestations on both sides, neither can justifiably state they know for sure.

Fundamentally, there appears to be nothing substantive in what Hamilton states other than his own testimony. And there certainly seems to be nothing new. Nonetheless, his words have reignited an old fire, and cycling fans the world over are arguing amongst themselves until they are blue in the face over what essentially amounts to the same old hearsay. There is certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence being readily quoted – but little in the way of hard evidence.

Now I’m not saying that people on either side of the fence aren’t entitled to draw their own opinions and reach their own conclusions, or to share those with others. Of course they – we – all are. But there is a very fine line to tread between stating one’s opinion and repeating it as incontrovertible fact. Lawyers have a word for that: libel.

More collateral damage

Regardless of whether these (not particularly) new allegations are true or not, they do the reputation of the sport – which many non-fans regard with an immediate degree of suspicion – no good at all.

Of course, everyone wants a doping regime which is effective at weeding out the cheats. Of course, everyone wants transparency in the way the process is run. Of course, everyone wants all cyclists to be treated the same, whether they are a hugely powerful and wealthy figure such as Armstrong, or John Smith, a neo-pro on a minor team.

But for both sides of the argument to fling mud furiously at one another and claim both truth and the moral high ground merely inflicts more collateral damage on the sport. If Armstrong did dope, this would cast an appalling shadow over not just him, but also the sport’s authorities and testing processes. But if he is innocent – and, as far as we know, there is currently nothing in the public domain that can prove otherwise – then cycling’s already battered reputation takes a further pounding. Sometimes it’s all too easy to lose sight of that in the pursuit of point-scoring.

I will cast no judgement about Armstrong here. I do, of course, have an opinion on the matter. But on this occasion I think it’s better to keep it to myself.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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