Living Strong With a Lie?
Background on the Lance Armstrong affair, as it was at the time of our 2012 September October magazine.
Ever since his momentous come-from-the-dead return to win the 1999 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong’s achievements have polarised not just the cycling or the sporting world but the world at large. Few, if any, sit on the fence when it comes to Big Tex and whether or not he doped. But with fresh, damning allegations this May from the US Anti-Doping Agency, Judgement Day appears nigh for world’s most recognisable sporting figure. Anthony Tan reports.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
- Dr. Joseph Goebbels, 1897-1945, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda
There is some contention as to whether Goebbels did indeed make such a brazen statement. But in reference to formal allegations of doping brought by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) against Lance Armstrong it is particularly salient, regardless of whether Hitler’s infamous spin doctor said it or not. The question remains, though: just who is lying? Because the lie has been repeated ad infinitum, most of you have already made up your mind. Few, if any, sit on the fence. In the court of public opinion he has already been tried. But if you knew what USADA knew, would you be inclined to think or care otherwise?
On June 12 this year, USADA sent a fifteen-page letter to Armstrong and five former associates, including former team manager and the man considered to be the architect behind his seven consecutive Tour de France victories, Johan Bruyneel, as well as the Texan’s former controversial sports trainer, Dr Michele Ferrari, detailing various charges against each of them. In the letter, USADA alleged that each member of the sextet “engaged in anti-doping rule violations under the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Anti-Doping rules from 1998 to present, World Anti-Doping Code from inception to present, and USADA protocol for Olympic and Paralympic Movement Testing from inception to present.”
Furthermore, said USADA, “The witnesses to the conduct described in this letter include more than ten cyclists as well as cycling team employees.”
John Fahey, the Australian president of World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), told FoxSports on June 14: “I have been aware of the investigations for some time and the likelihood that they (USADA) would proceed to give him a notice to show cause why charges shouldn’t be laid. They’ve spoken to many witnesses collecting the evidence over a considerable period of time. A lot of the anti-doping agencies work hand-in-hand with the law enforcement agencies and that certainly makes trying to catch the cheat far more effective.”
The June 12 letter, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, said that, “an important aspect of USADA’s investigation has been face-to-face meetings between USADA representatives and riders” on the United States Postal Service (1996-2004), Discovery Channel (2005-07), Astana (2009) and RadioShack (2010) cycling teams.
“With respect to Lance Armstrong, numerous riders, team personnel and others will testify based on personal knowledge acquired either through observing Armstrong dope or through Armstrong’s admissions of doping to them that Lance Armstrong used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone during the period from before 1998 through to 2005,” said the letter, “and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and HGH (human growth hormone) through 1996.”
USADA has not revealed the names of the cyclists who provided evidence against – or, conceivably though unlikely, in support of – Armstrong. But we may have an idea. On June 16, we learned that four hot prospects for the US Olympic road team for the London Games – all former teammates of Armstrong’s during his halcyon years – withdrew their names for consideration, namely Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie. “It’s unusual,” Steve Johnson, chief executive of USA Cycling, told the New York Times the following day. “To have four athletes opt out, that’s never happened, to my knowledge. The real answer is, I don’t, and we don’t, know why.”
“Any questions related to their decision should be directed to the individual athletes,” read the brief statement from USA Cycling. Unsurprisingly, so far, no athlete has responded to requests for comment regarding the case against Armstrong et al.
It should be no revelation that Armstrong denied all charges, issuing a familiar line of defence. “I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one,” he said in a June 13 statement on his website.
“That USADA ignores this fundamental distinction and charges me instead of the admitted dopers says far more about USADA, its lack of fairness and this vendetta than it does about my guilt or innocence.”
Hincapie, who is set to retire at the end of the season, is the only member to have been a part of all seven Tour victories accomplished by Armstrong from 1999-2005. He told the Associated Press earlier in the year: “They’re (USA Cycling) probably going to want me on the Olympic team. It’s not something I’m thinking about every day, but I’d love to go to a sixth Olympics.” Around the same time Vande Velde, who was on the Postal Service squad from 1998-2003, told cyclingnews.com, “I want to go to the Olympics really bad.”
The June 12 letter from USADA said that with the exception of Armstrong, “every other US rider contacted regarding doping in cycling agreed to meet with USADA to truthfully and fully describe their involvement in doping and doping by others of which they were aware”.
Essentially, this means that any of the riders who gave testimony would likely receive immunity or at the very least, a significant reduction in any ban, should they have admitted to involvement in any doping conspiracy. Anti-doping rules include a provision for athletes, past or present, that provide substantial assistance to authorities in doping investigations – up to a 75 per cent reduction of a maximum two-year punishment. There is also the WADA code’s eight-year statute of limitations. Technically, if the charges are proven, the WADA statute threatens only those involved in Armstrong’s 2004 and 2005 Tour wins. It’s also worth noting that USADA is not a law enforcement agency and lacks the power to bring criminal charges, meaning Armstrong cannot go to jail, even if found guilty.
But as almost always with Lance, it is different. USADA has said that because Armstrong has waived his right to the WADA statute “through false statements, fraudulent concealment or other wrongful conduct”, all seven Tour victories are under threat of annulment including a lifetime Olympic ban. What’s really at stake here, however, is a monumental loss of face, and a fairytale legacy cynics considered too good to be true.
Armstrong had until June 22 to formally answer the charges (just 10 days after receiving the bombshell letter from USADA) before the case was heard by the USADA Anti-Doping Review Board; a three-person panel comprised of technical, legal and medical experts. Based on evidence submitted, the review board decides whether USADA has a strong enough case to pursue charges. His legal team demanded access to evidence gathered by USADA – including a witness list and expert analysis of blood data from 2009 and 2010 the anti-doping agency claims to be “fully consistent with blood manipulation, including EPO and/or blood transfusions”.
The trigger that sparked the USADA inquiry came from a 21-month Food and Drug Administration (FDA) probe championed by star agent Jeff Novitzky, who famously blew the lid open on doping malpractice at the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) involving baseballer Barry Bonds and track-and-field star Marion Jones. For reasons not entirely known, the FDA investigation was abruptly shelved by the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles on February 3 this year, and rather bizarrely, the Friday before Super Bowl, the nation’s largest annual sporting event. “I had days where thought I was f**ked,” Armstrong told the Men’s Journal magazine in their June 2012 issue. “But I always thought the right decision would be made.”