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Reflections on the Lance Armstrong endgame

Late last night, Lance Armstrong announced he would not be fighting the drug charges raised by the US Anti-Doping Agency against him. While stopping a long way short of being an admission of guilt, it seems clear this was the least worst option for him. He has now been stripped of his seven Tour de France wins, not to mention opening the floodgates for a series of lawsuits which will cost him significantly financially as well as in terms of his reputation. Here are my summary thoughts on the subject – you can read more from both my fellow VeloVoices bloggers and the wider Twittersphere over at VeloVoices.com.

Armstrong’s statement is a masterpiece of obfuscation, but really this was just the full-stop at the end of a sentence which has been written over a period of years. The true believers will still believe. The armchair prosecutors will bemoan the lack of an admission of guilt. ’Twas ever thus.

In that respect, nothing has changed. In many others, though, everything has: history will record Lance Armstrong as a no-time Tour de France winner. The all-American hero has been unmasked as the devil.

So while this is closure with neither conclusion or conviction – and I doubt the story will truly end here – it’s still a pivotal day. Some fans are sad, some are still mad and others are grave-dancing. A few will always believe, no matter what. Like many, I’m somewhere in between.

To me, he is still the greatest cyclist of his generation. He is also a cheat. I’m conflicted. Sue me. (Please don’t.)

It’s time to move on. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Lance was just the public tip of a large pharmacological iceberg, but let’s learn the lessons and march forward without constantly looking back. I hope ASO will declare ‘no winner’ for the 1999-2005 Tours as a reminder to future generations. I suspect that won’t happen, and Messrs Zulle, Ullrich, Beloki, Kloden and Basso will inherit those titles without turning a pedal. That might just be the greatest crime of all.

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The week in numbers: w/e 22/4/12

Vettel finally won his first race of the 2012 season (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

10 – Points separating the top five drivers after defending Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel won the Bahrain Grand Prix. His first victory of the season catapulted him from fifth to first in the standings, with 53 points.

4 – The win by Red Bull’s Vettel marked the first time since 1983 the first four races of the season have been won by four different drivers (Button, Alonso, Rosberg, Vettel) from four different teams (McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull).

2Wilson Kipsang and defending champion Mary Keitany secured a Kenyan double by winning the men’s and women’s races at the London Marathon.

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The week in numbers: w/e 25/12/11

Cavendish added the BBC SPotY award to his green and rainbow jerseys (image courtesy of Wikipedia

2 – Mark Cavendish followed in the footsteps of Tom Simpson by becoming only the second road cyclist to be crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SpotY). Cavendish had already emulated the achievement of Simpson 46 years earlier as the only British riders to win a World Championship road race, and also became the first Briton to win the green jersey at the Tour de France in 2011.

49.47% – In winning SPotY, Cavendish received a staggering 49.47% of the total votes cast between the ten shortlisted finalists, four times as many as runner-up Darren Clarke.

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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?


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

Is it game over for Armstrong? (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Yesterday, I posted about the revelations made by Tyler Hamilton in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes which is due to be broadcast on Sunday, in which he claims he witnessed Lance Armstrong injecting himself with the banned blood booster EPO during the 1999 Tour de France, the first of his record seven consecutive wins in the sport’s biggest race.

Now, 60 Minutes is also reporting that George Hincapie – for several years Armstrong’s most trusted lieutenant and a man who he described as being “like a brother to me” – has testified to the federal authorities investigating doping in cycling that he also saw him use performance-enhancing drugs, and that the pair supplied each other with both EPO and testosterone. (A link to the relevant Associated Press article is here.)

Armstrong’s spokesman, Mark Fabiani, has responded to this latest report, saying in a manner which sounds an awfully long way short of a categorical denial:

We have no way of knowing what happened in the grand jury and so can’t comment on these anonymously sourced reports.

The facts?

As I noted in my earlier post, Hamilton’s testimony offered little in the way of new accusations but certainly added extra volume to the weight of circumstantial evidence against Armstrong. And, as a formerly convicted doper, he was an easy target to discredit in much the same way Floyd Landis‘s similar revelations had been smeared last year.

Hincapie, however, is an entirely different case. He has never failed a doping test, has no grudge to bear against Armstrong and no book to promote by flinging mud from the rooftops. It would appear that, like Hamilton, he was subpoenaed to appear in front of a grand jury, and instead of perjuring himself under oath – or perhaps having been offered the carrot of immunity from prosecution – he has opted to break the omerta which surrounds doping in cycling and come clean.

That’s how it appears, anyway. We will not know for sure until we learn the results of the federal investigation. But 60 Minutes is not the National Enquirer. It is a serious and credible source for investigative journalism, and the way they are drip-feeding their sensational soundbites to the world suggests a high level of confidence in the veracity of their story.

Could this really be the end of the road for Armstrong?

The emotion

My immediate response to this latest news is two-fold.

Firstly, there is the matter of ‘guilt’. For years, I watched in amazement as Armstrong dominated the Tour. Did I suspect doping? Yes. I know enough about sport in general to be suspicious of any extraordinary performer. But did I assume he was guilty? No. And, to my eyes, while there has been a lot of circumstantial evidence building up over the years which has seen my faith waver, there has never been conclusive evidence from ‘reliable’ witnesses other than hearsay. I have doubted, certainly, but never condemned.

Now, with these latest revelations, I find myself moving from the ranks of believers to the side of the sceptics. I still believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty – while I have grave doubts over the innocence of Alberto Contador, I also support his right to a fair hearing at CAS next month – which means I will refuse to condemn Armstrong until we know the conclusions of the grand jury. But yes, Hincapie’s apparent testimony is incredibly damaging to Armstrong, and seems to increase the likelihood of his guilt far more than Landis’s and Hamilton’s words.

My second reaction is one of immense sadness.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. If Lance Armstrong is eventually found guilty – and for now he is guilty only in the court of public opinion – then he will fully deserve whatever punishment is meted out to him. I have no problem whatsoever with that. But while the haters will celebrate – as they already are with considerable vehemence and premature glee on Twitter – the credibility and image of cycling as a sport will take massive collateral damage. The most successful name in the recent history of the sport, the one who is most responsible for growing its global popularity, will be discredited. German fans and media have already deserted the sport. Will American supporters do so too? What will cycling’s commercial future be then? And what impact will it have on driving away casual – and maybe even dedicated – fans of the sport?

Again, let me be 100% clear on this. I am not saying that commercial or image considerations should be allowed to obfuscate the truth or any punishment, no matter how unpalatable that may be. What I am asking is if there is much point celebrating the downfall of a cheat if it brings the entire sport down with it? And what if Contador is also found guilty next month? When the dust has settled, what will remain?

I realise I am painting a doomsday scenario here. No matter what, cycling will go on. But there can surely be no doubt that the sport, which has more than its share of PR problems, would be severely damaged by any ‘guilty’ verdict against Armstrong and/or Contador. If no one is willing to believe in cycling, where will the sponsors go? And if the sponsors go, how viable is the current cycling calendar and commercial structure? The sport would be cleaner, for sure, and that would be a win worth celebrating. But there are no real winners in a Pyrrhic victory.

I desperately want Lance Armstrong to be proven innocent. Not because he is one of the few sportsmen I idolise, but because I fear for the future of the discredited sport it would leave behind if he really has been cheating all this time. I desperately want to believe. But as I type this tonight, I find it increasingly difficult to continue doing so, and it feels like a little piece of me that believes in the purity of sport just died.

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