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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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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.

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.

The week in numbers: w/e 20/2/11

Armstrong has now retired (again)

7 – Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong officially confirmed his second retirement from cycling, at the age of 39.

326 – Club goals scored (in 466 games) by Brazilian striker Ronaldo, who retired last week. He also scored 62 goals in 97 international appearances.

6Arsenal came from behind to beat Barcelona 2-1 in their Champions League last-16 first leg match. It is the first time in six meetings the English side has beaten the Spanish champions (two draws, three defeats).

70Raúl scored his 70th goal in European competition as Schalke 04 drew 1-1 in Valencia in their Champions League last-16 match.

176 – Price (in pounds, including a £26 booking fee) of the cheapest tickets available for May’s Champions League final at Wembley, as announced by UEFA last week.

Wozniacki regained the ladies' number one ranking (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

1Caroline Wozniacki won the Dubai Championships final yesterday. In so doing, she regained the number one ranking from Kim Clijsters, to whom she lost the top spot last week.

10Stephen Hendry equalled Ronnie O’Sullivan‘s record of ten 147 breaks in professional competition, but nonetheless lost 4-2 to Stephen Maguire in the second round of the Welsh Open.

2Genoa‘s comeback from 3-0 down to defeat AS Roma 4-3 was only the second time this century this has happened in Serie A. Roma boss Claudio Raineri resigned after the game.

3 – Gold medals won by Britain in Olympic events at the cycling track World Cup in Manchester. Chris Hoy won the men’s keirin, while both the men’s and women’s pursuit teams won their competitions.

20 – In centimetres, the length of the splinter which had to be removed from the calf of Malaysia’s Aziz Awang, after a crash in the men’s keirin on Saturday.

13:10.60Mo Farah set a new British and European indoor 5,000 metres record at the Birmingham Grand Prix. He took one second off the former European record, and ten off the British one.

The cricket World Cup in numbers

370India‘s 370/4 against Bangladesh in the opening match of the tournament was the fifth highest total ever at the cricket World Cup. They have scored three of the five highest totals.

Sehwag scored 175 against Bangladesh

175 Virender Sehwag hit 175 against Bangladesh. Only three players have ever scored more in a World Cup match.

203 – Sehwag and Virat Kohli put on 203 for the third wicket. It was the ninth double century partnership in World Cup history, and the eighth highest overall. India have accounted for five of those nine 200-plus partnerships (Sourav Ganguly has been part of three of them.)

4Mahela Jayawardene scored 100 off 81 balls as Sri Lanka eased to an opening victory over Canada. It was the fourth-fastest century in World Cup history.

69Kenya were bowled out for just 69 as New Zealand cruised to an easy ten-wicket win.

The FA Cup in numbers

16 Brighton‘s 3-0 defeat at the Britannia Stadium meant they have failed to win in their last 16 visits to Stoke City.

6 Crawley Town, who lost 1-0 at Manchester United, were only the sixth non-league team since World War II to reach the fifth round. None has progressed further.

5 Leyton Orient‘s 1-1 draw with Arsenal was the first time they had avoided defeat against the Gunners in five FA Cup meetings – and only the second time they had scored.

8 – Arsenal have now failed to keep a clean sheet in their last eight FA Cup matches. They have conceded exactly one goal in each of their four matches so far in this season’s competition.

7 Chelsea lost on penalties to Everton in their fourth round replay, having finished 1-1 after extra time. They have now lost seven of their last eight penalty shootouts in all competitions.

3 – All three penalty shootouts in this season’s FA Cup have been won by the away team.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times@InfostradaLive and @StatManJon.)

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