Five key questions for cycling if Lance Armstrong is guilty

Based on what has already been revealed in advance of tomorrow’s 60 Minutes edition on CBS regarding evidence given by former US Postal teammates Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie, it would appear that the FDA investigators’ net is beginning to tighten around seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and his alleged use of banned performance-enhancing substances such as erythropoietin (EPO) and testosterone.

This has led to much heated debate in cycling circles and on Twitter, with both sides digging in their heels. Armstrong’s camp say there is no tangible evidence as yet and point to over 500 negative doping tests in his career. The haters are already pronouncing him guilty and dancing on his grave with almost unseemly glee. However, it should be noted that any testimony, no matter how damning it may seem in soundbite form, does not automatically guarantee a conviction in a court of law. Any assumptions about Armstrong’s guilt are, for now at least, no more than that: assumptions.

But what if Armstrong is guilty? When the flush of success for his opponents wears off, what are the implications for the future of cycling – remembering that we still have Alberto Contador‘s hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport to follow in June? What if we suddenly find that the winners of 11 of the last 12 Tours de France – Armstrong (seven) Contador (three) and Floyd Landis – have in fact been exposed as cheats after the event?

Looking at the bigger picture, here are five questions which will need to be addressed if Armstrong and/or Contador are convicted – and one which requires an answer regardless:

1. Where do you draw the line?

There are arguments for and against delving back into cycling’s past to clean up its act. On the one hand, it is important for the sport to be seen not to ignore its often sordid past. On the other, convicting past offenders does nothing to aid the current and future battle against doping. (Indeed, it could deflect focus and resources away from it.)

I don’t have a problem with the federal investigation into Armstrong, but it’s important to decide where to draw the line going forward. We already know about Jan Ullrich, Bjarne Riis and Laurent Fignon. But what about Miguel Indurain? Or Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil, the last of whom admitted in all but name that doping was ubiquitous in the sport in his era. I am absolutely not saying that all of the above were dopers. But I’m certainly not saying all of them were ‘clean’ either.

Where does ‘investigation’ end and ‘witch-hunt’ begin? The line needs to be drawn somewhere.

2. Should Armstrong be stripped of his seven wins?

Ullrich was runner-up behind Armstrong three times, but is hardly a paragon of virtue himself (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Riis, Fignon and Anquetil’s names remain in the record books, despite their confessions or virtual admissions. But should Armstrong’s name be eradicated?

Emotionally, it is easy to say yes. Rationally, it is a tougher call. Consider who would become the winners of the Tour in the Armstrong years of 1999-2005, and the lines of fairness start to blur:

  • Alex Zülle (1999) – admitted taking EPO as part of the 1998 Festina affair.
  • Jan Ullrich (2000, 2001, 2003) – implicated in Operación Puerto and suspended from the 2006 Tour. He was never formally banned – he retired first – but there was certainly considerable evidence linking him to doping.
  • Joseba Beloki (2002) – implicated in Operación Puerto, but subsequently cleared by Spanish authorities.
  • Andreas Klöden (2004) – allegations in 2009 claiming that he used illegal blood transfusions during the 2006 Tour.
  • Ivan Basso (2005) – implicated in Operación Puerto. Banned for two years in 2007.

Where does the trail of suspicion end? At this rate, I am looking forward to being declared the winner of the 2003 Tour – although I would probably be disqualified for some technicality or other.

3. What is the role of the UCI in all this?

There have long been allegations of senior figures in the UCI being implicit in covering up positive doping tests by Armstrong at both the 1999 Tour de France and 2001 Tour de Suisse. Certainly, their handling of the Contador case – where they dallied over publicising his positive test until just before the media were about to break the story – does not inspire confidence. It at least supports the contention that the sport’s governing body may at times be more concerned with image than truth.

Armstrong may be guilty. But if so I doubt he is the only one who has had something to hide all this time. The American may go away. But the UCI remains, as do the questions over its objectivity.

4. What will happen in the US?

In the wake of Jan Ullrich and a catalogue of other negative doping stories, German media, fans and sponsors abandoned cycling in their droves. What if the same happens in the US as a result of an Armstrong conviction?

In particular Amgen, the current sponsor of the Tour of California, manufactures EPO, so it is hard to see how their position would remain tenable. (In truth, it is hard to understand their presence in the sport at all.) But will American team sponsors walk away, just as T-Mobile did in Germany? What would then be the future of RadioShack, HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervélo, three of the biggest teams in the sport? The US is a vital commercial market for any global sport, and largely as a result of Armstrong’s success it has blossomed in recent years. But cycling is not in the DNA of the US, unlike in many European countries. If the American market and sponsors pick up their ball and walk away, can the sport’s commercial structure and ambitions survive in its current form?

5. What is the future for cycling?

The potential closure of the US market. A discredited sport which turns away casual viewers. Perhaps even a disillusioned core of dedicated fans, some of whom will decide enough is enough. It may be a doomsday scenario, but it is certainly possible.

Many of the smaller teams already live something of a hand-to-mouth existence. Cycling is not a sport overflowing with multi-millionaires and baby Bentleys. Take away the lucrative US market and potentially other big European sponsors who no longer want to be associated with cycling, and the sport would face a significant financial downsizing in order to survive. Sure, the biggest races – the Grand Tours, the Classics and so on – would continue, but what about the smaller races which are valuable fund-raisers and allow the larger teams to run with 25-30 man squads.

Could we see a contraction of the sport, with a reduced calendar of smaller races and teams being forced to reduce their roster by, say, 25-30%? It’s not a very attractive future, is it?

One more question

Hincapie's testimony appears damning - but how has this come to be public knowledge?

Regardless of what happens from here on in, exactly how did CBS learn of Hincapie’s testimony? The rider himself says he did not talk to CBS. CBS confirms they did not talk to Hincapie. And yet we not only know that Hincapie testified in front of the authorities, but we also know the gist of what he said. Isn’t grand jury testimony supposed to be privileged information? So who leaked the story, and why?

For further reading and an expert opinion, I would recommend Cycle Sport‘s Lionel Birnie‘s piece which helps join the dots as we know them so far. We still don’t know anything for sure – and won’t do for some time, even after the 60 Minutes programme airs tomorrow – but the previously murky picture does appear to be slowly becoming clearer, and it is not one which makes for attractive viewing, whether you are Lance Armstrong or a fan of cycling in general.

Following the 60 Minutes timeline

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

Does Hincapie’s testimony signal game, set and match for Lance Armstrong?


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

9 Responses to Five key questions for cycling if Lance Armstrong is guilty

  1. Tim the investigation is not cycling related. It has to do with the fact that US Postal is a federal institution. So money from them being used for doping is a crime. Jail time might be involved. So this is a CRIMINAL investigation.

    • Tim says:

      You’re quite right, Dragos, it is a criminal investigation. But the angle I’m looking at this from is the knock-on impact a conviction would have on the sport itself, Whether a criminal conviction or not, it is the proof that Armstrong doped which would be the most damaging aspect as far as cycling and the fans are concerned. The fact that this would come at the hands of the FDA rather than the UCI is irrelevant in this respect – although it does reflect badly on the UCI too.

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  3. Don’t know what is most sad in all this. Hincapie’s reputation was solid and reliable and now he is tarnished. Armstrong was already living under a veil of suspicion. Cycling is only going to suffer if we let this stuff tarnish our appreciation of the spectacle. Cycling should deal with these episodes and move on – however many there are. I do agree with you that it’s difficult to decide about eradicating victories from record books. We could continue wiping out records and end up with the guy who finished 10th being named the winner. Sports fans aren’t dumb. leave the wins inctact because once the reutation of a cyclist dies the wins are tarnished anyway.

    • Tim says:

      It’s a difficult situation with no easy answer. The blood-letting is important for the credibility of the sport, but a line has to be drawn somewhere before it becomes all-consuming.

      I’m sad for Hincapie, who has always seemed like one of life’s nice guys, happy to unselfishly serve his team leader. One can only imagine the pressure riders are under to perform every day and every week of the season. But I find it difficult to look at him in the same way now. Difficult though I’m sure it was – and it’s easy for us to get on our high horses from the outside – an individual always has a choice. Hincapie made his, and only now after a long and successful career is he starting to pay the price for it.

      He simply isn’t the man I thought he was. I’n not angry, just disappointed.

  4. I think we should leave the history books alone. Riis and the others have kept their titles because there is no proof of their doping, beyond their own confessions. The same will be true of Armstrong, even if he is found guilty, as we’ll never have evidence of doping for any one particular race. Besides, doping has been pretty endemic in the sport in periods, and I’m sure many fans will argue that we’ll never know the true results anyway.

    Let’s look to the future. I’d like to see a clean-up in the UCI, and a fresh start with a no-tolerance policy. There is more than a suggestion that they have actively aided high profile riders under drug suspicion, and that attitude has to change.

    As for the impact on the sport – it will be huge. I hate the think.

    • Tim says:

      Hi Beata. It seems there may be some specific evidence relating to the 1999 TdF and the 2001 Tour de Suisse, but we will have to see how this all shakes out. 60 Minutes offered a lot of background, but there is a difference between this and hard evidence. However, it certainly looks bad for Armstrong – and the UCI – and I’m sure 60 Minutes would not have run the story if they weren’t confident they could back it up.

      I’m still in two minds about cleaning up the past. It needs to be done to an extent – issues of credibility and acting as a warning to current offenders – but absolutely not at the expense of diverting money and focus from fighting the good fight today.

  5. Richard says:

    You said: “On the other, convicting past offenders does nothing to aid the current and future battle against doping.”

    In fact, invoking strong penalties for past actions is very important. Most elite athletes are concerned about their legacies and championships. And no sport will have 100% effective testing, especially for contemporaneous PEDs. So effective drug policy REQUIRES an effective threat of potential FUTURE punishment to deter CURRENT PED use. Going after past drug cheats is an integral part of this enforcement strategy.

    I personally believe that the WADA should enforce a “death penalty” of sorts–any athlete caught cheating must return all honors and earnings won prior to the failed drug test on the presumption that all previous competitions also had cheating. That would give a strong incentive against cheating. The prospective punishments are much less effective–too often athletes are caught after they’ve already won impressive titles or are near the ends of their careers.

    As for the Tour, it can simply vacate the titles over that period with no champions (like the 2005 Heisman). The IOC has done this as well. There’s no requirement that a tainted competition has a winner. Only the sport geeks are so focused on maintaining historical series. Instead, the vacated titles remind us of what travesty had occurred.

    As for the success of cycling. there’s no particular reason why any sport needs to generate huge revenues and provide full time salaries. We forget that these are simply games that most do as a pastime. We get often get too wrapped up in sports business.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for your comment, Richard. You raise some very interesting points.

      My intention in the draw the line “point” was to offer up both sides of the argument – my opinion sits somewhere between the two extremes. I agree with you that one cannot completely ignore the sordid past, but I think it is important to know where to draw the line. The authorities only have limited resources, so I feel the majority of their effort needs to be put into identifying and prosecuting current cheats. Going after past cheats is, for me, part of the strategy, but should only be a small part. If we had to choose between one or the other exclusively, I would rather we prosecute those who cheat now than those who cheated in the past. Proving that Anquetil, say, used amphetamines would accomplish nothing. (I know that’s an extreme example!)

      The current investigation (which, of course, goes wider than just Armstrong) should be a win-win for cycling, as it is a federal rather than sporting process, so costs the UCI/WADA nothing. I’m happy with that. Although one has to wonder how the UCI has done so little for so long.

      I do like the idea of having more stringent penalties – I’m an advocate of life bans for serious offences – but particularly the removal of past results, as you suggest.

      Not sure about having a vacant title – for me, any competition should have a winner – but then I probably fall into the category of sport geek!

      I’m sure cycling will go on no matter what, even if its commercial situation worsens. My point is that it would not be able to exist in its current form and would require significant restructuring to reduce costs, as has already happened in F1. That would probably mean teams would run smaller squads and a number of the smaller races would be killed off. It would probably also mean a shift in geographical focus in search of new markets – losing the US would be a bad thing, but it would also open up new opportunities. A smaller sport could be either better or worse – but it would certainly have to be different.

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