4 February, 2013Issue 21.2EssaysNorth AmericaSport

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Lance Armstrong Still Hasn’t Come Clean

Jared Spier

Lance Armstrong

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It’s never been about
the bike, it’s always been
about Lance Armstrong.

When I first learned that Lance Armstrong was talking to USADA in December, and that he would confess his cheating in the January interview with Oprah Winfrey, I was hopeful of what this might mean for cycling. I assumed that the confession would be almost entirely self-serving, but I believed that there would be a silver lining that everyone involved in cycling must also have been hoping for. If Lance was significantly to reduce his sanction, he had to provide evidence to incriminate an even bigger fish: the sport’s governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI). Sadly, though Lance did finally admit to many of the violations to which the statute of limitations had expired, he continued to lie throughout the interview with Oprah Winfrey about everything else, including the continuous and corrupt involvement of the UCI. Given that this confession of cheating also opens Lance to substantial legal ramifications, the costs of which could potentially bankrupt him, it leads me to wonder what he was hoping to achieve with such action and brings me to the question: why confess now?

I believe that one of the UK’s top cycling journalists, Edward Pickering may have found the answer, saying of Lance: “He can deal with admiration. He is also extremely comfortable with hate – he feeds off it. […] But Lance Armstrong’s worst nightmare is irrelevance.”

Despite not having had an ideal upbringing, Lance quickly became accustomed to being noticed. His difficult childhood could have led him on a path to failure, but through sport he became a success. He began winning triathlons as a young teenager and became a professional triathlete at age 16. As a 20 year-old, he was the leader of the United States men’s cycling team at the Barcelona Olympics and in 1993, he became the youngest ever winner of professional cycling’s World Championship Road Race.

Lance Armstrong won everything and it was these victories and the brash, arrogant and impossibly strong way in which he won, that came to define him. Of course, the world does not know Lance Armstrong because of these victories. We know him through his battle with testicular cancer, his incredible story of triumph and his record seven straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005. Most people are also aware of the Livestrong organization, which over the past 15 years has become one of the World’s most recognizable cancer charities. While these achievements may define our understanding of Lance Armstrong, his personality was most defined by those first wins that shaped him as a person and created a character with such a voracious appetite for winning that he was willing to go further than anyone else in pursuit of victory.

He has often held his achievements over the rest of the world with an air of contempt. On the Champs-Elysées, at the podium presentation for his seventh Tour de France win Lance said: “I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics. I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.” This January, during an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance did what no one ever expected him to do: after a career spent protesting his innocence and discrediting and destroying anyone who suggested he cheated, he confessed that his dominance was achieved through the use of performance enhancing drugs. As the world suddenly struggles to understand, “why confess now?”, it seems the answer is simple: he is still trying to win.

Throughout the reasoned decision released by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), eleven of Lance’s former teammates describe the culture of doping on the team, Lance’s role as leader and how many of them were pressured to fall in step and literally “get with the program”. Teammates who chose not to commit one hundred percent to Lance and to his way of doing things, quickly found themselves on the outside. Beyond his racing life, the story was no different. When a doping allegation was made, the reactive tactics were swift and incredibly aggressive. Journalists who dug too deep were ostracized or even sued, as were any publications that printed their work. Former teammates or workers who spoke of doping were immediately branded as liars, sore losers, and in the case of former soigneur Emma O’Reilly, labeled an alcoholic and a whore and pursued for £1,000,000 in damages. Since Lance’s confession, it is O’Reilly who has offered one of the best descriptions of Lance’s mindset regarding doping and the sporting authorities: “He was so blasé about it considering how serious it could have been but he just laughed it off as he thought he was untouchable.” The problem is that during that period, from 1999 to 2005, Lance was untouchable.

Lance’s rise to cycling dominance took place at the end of a decade where doping in endurance sport was almost uncontrollable. A new drug called erythropoietin (EPO) was available to athletes and significantly increased the body’s ability to carry oxygen to working muscles. The drug was on the list of banned substances, but, with no test in place to determine if an athlete was using EPO, its use was widespread and the results were clear to see, perhaps more so in cycling than in any other sport. Used correctly, EPO could offer a 10% increase in a body’s ability to perform aerobic work. In the sport of cycling and especially during the Grand Tours, a competitor’s success can easily be predicted based on their maximal power-to-weight ratio. One of cycling’s greatest coaches, Aldo Sassi, recognized that only the greatest “freaks” of the sport were blessed with a natural ability to produce anything more then 6.0 watts/kg. During the 2012 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky controlled the race without mercy. Their dominance was eerily similar to the way Lance Armstrong’s teams won, but there was one very significant difference. Team Sky’s pace in the mountains was often set by Michael Rogers, their on-road captain, who knew that if he held 450 watts, they would win. Michael is 75kg, meaning Team Sky’s dominance was achieved at exactly 6.0 watts/kg.

By comparison, Lance was winning the Tour de France with performances that equated to 6.7 watts/kg – approximately 10% higher than what he should be able to produce as the World’s most gifted natural athlete. To those who followed cycling, there was never any question of whether or not Lance doped, only when he would be caught.

Tragically, cycling’s governing body, the very organization that should have been protecting the sport from drug-cheats and corruption, chose consistently to turn a blind eye to cycling’s doping problems, and did so at great cost. Jean-Francois Quinet, a French author and cycling historian, estimated that as many as 80 riders died during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s due to misuse or overuse of doping products. Most of these riders were young men, trying to earn their place on a team, but with nearly every professional team involved in some level of doping at that time, it was simply impossible to compete if you weren’t also doped.

To call the UCI’s treatment of the sport during this time anything short of horrific is an injustice to the families of these young men who died chasing their dreams. It is reflecting on statistics like these that make me glad that I came to the sport later in life. The UCI’s continued stance on the wrong side of such major issues that has led me to focus my enjoyment of cycling on the natural challenges and beauty of the sport, while largely avoiding anything but the most grass-roots levels of sanctioned events. At a time when there was something so dangerously and obviously wrong with the sport of cycling, the UCI would only focus on how captivated the World was by Lance’s story, how new media markets and recreational riders were drawn to the sport and how they stood to gain substantially from the increased profile.

The UCI is known to have excused a failed test for Lance at the 1999 Tour de France, but the USADA’s report brings forward more serious misconducts. These include the UCI giving notice to Lance’s team prior to out-of-competition tests, warning riders delivering
suspect test values, and holding reviews with Lance and his manager of the exact testing protocol for EPO—easily recognizable as lessons in how not to get caught. Most seriously, there are many accounts of a story told by Lance to his teammates of a failed test in 2001, which was erased from the record by the UCI in exchange for donations totaling $125,000. While the UCI finally admitted in 2010 that accepting such a donation was a mistake, it is their special treatment of Lance that is fast becoming the bigger scandal. The UCI has always disavowed any responsibility for cycling’s ‘dark ages’ of doping, an action that is immensely frustrating in itself (who other then a sport’s governing body is meant to govern it?) However, it is their confusing attempts to discredit the USADA process and the numerous defamation lawsuits against critical journalists, former riders, and even the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which are viewed by many as an enforcement of the omertà surrounding illegal actions in cycling. Fortunately, in the USADA, supporters of clean sport seem to have found an ally.

When the USADA first contacted Lance to discuss the evidence against him and the idea that he should cooperate with the investigation, his reactions were typical. Having already had a donation of $250,000 refused by the agency, Lance went on the offensive. Lawsuits were launched and insults were hurled. It quickly became clear that Lance had no grounds on which legitimately to contest the case against him, so he refocused his efforts onto the court of public opinion. His lawyer, Tim Herman, released statements describing the USADA case as “a one-sided hatchet job — a taxpayer funded tabloid piece rehashing old, disproved, unreliable allegations based largely on axe-grinders, serial perjurers, coerced testimony, sweetheart deals and threat-induced stories.” Eventually, left with no other options, Lance made perhaps his most desperate and revealing decision: he stopped trying to win.

On 23 August, 2012, Lance Armstrong released a statement to confirm that he would not contest the USADA case and accept whatever sanction they imposed, staunchly reaffirming his history as a clean athlete and calling the entire process an “unconstitutional witch hunt” and a “pitiful charade”. He hoped to be viewed as a martyr and worked to some extent, as many celebrities voiced their support and mass media was seemingly split on whether Lance was good or evil. Then, in November, after the USADA’s decision had been released for the public to review, Lance showed his truest colours, tweeting a now famous image of himself sat in the lounge of his mansion, with all seven Tour de France yellow jerseys hung around him, with the caption “Back in Austin and just layin’ around.” These two actions seemed incredibly childish at the time, but in light of his recent confession, they are simply absurd and make it obvious that Lance’s recent confession has nothing to do with remorse.

Sadly, the UCI’s actions following the release of the USADA report have been equally self-serving. Throughout the past two decades, a favoured tactic of the UCI has been to deflect the blame onto other parties, and the statement released by the UCI following the publication of the USADA report continued this trend: they both absolved themselves of all the testing which didn’t catch Armstrong and took credit for the testing which caught two of his former teammates. Another great frustration at that time was what should have been one of the loudest voices of no confidence in the UCI went almost entirely ignored by media. After 17 years sponsoring all levels of cycling, Rabobank withdrew as a sponsor and included in their press release the statement that they were “no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport.” Nearly every media report continued to cover this story as part of the “Lance Armstrong Scandal”, when we should have been considering the UCI scandal.

As part of their reaction to the USADA reasoned decision, the UCI did appoint an independent commission to review the matter, citing that they “have listened to the world’s reaction to the Lance Armstrong affair and have taken these additional decisive steps in response to the grave concerns raised.” However, the commission was only to focus on Lance Armstrong and how he managed to pass so many tests–it did nothing to investigate the USADA’s conclusion that there had been serious misconduct by the UCI in abetting Lance and his team. Furthermore, the independence of the UCI Commission was seriously in doubt from the outset, with the almost all other chief stakeholders for cycling citing the commission’s narrow scope, non-public reporting, and even witness briefings by the UCI, prior to their meeting with the commission as methods in which the USADA felt “the UCI has blindfolded and handcuffed this independent commission to ensure a pre-determined outcome.” Eventually, even its own Independent Commission turned against the UCI, and, on January 28 this year it was announced that the commission had been disbanded by the UCI, followed quickly by more distraction and deflection.

While the more believable performances delivered by cycling’s current stars suggest that the battle against doping is being won, the fight for truth in cycling seems much more elusive. Yet just as those within the sport knew that Lance would eventually be caught, it seems inevitable that the UCI will one day be exposed for their role in the affair. As one cycling insider stated “this is a battle for the truth and the UCI is going to lose.”

Jared Spier has delivered the Efficient Cycling Programme for Oxford University Estates Services since 2009 and works for a cycle-travel company in Europe.

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