The US doping investigation that led to Lance Armstrong being stripped of his Tour de France titles has exposed the rot in a popular sport. But amid the controversy and disappointments, it should not be overlooked that the sport has turned itself inside out to purge that pungent history.
That uphill climb alone was quite an achievement.
The pursuit of Mr. Armstrong has been even messier than a peloton of cyclists careening around cobblestoned streets in the Tour de France. Personal rivalries and long-simmering resentments almost certainly played a role in bringing forth the evidence against Armstrong.
The 202-page report by the United States Anti-Doping Agency relied on the testimony of more than two dozen witnesses, including 11 former teammates. US anti-doping officials say the systematized doping they uncovered is “more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history.” The International Cycling Union accepted the USADA's verdict, took away Armstrong’s seven Tour titles, and banned him from the sport for life.
The prosecution of doping cases, even when there are solid lab results (which the USADA could not rely on in this case), can be tricky from a scientific perspective. It can also be imperfect in the eyes of legal experts. Most cases are settled by the international Court of Arbitration for Sport and not a traditional court system.
National and international governing bodies responsible for keeping their sports clean often have other considerations, if not agendas, that affect their decisions. Critics say the global anti-doping framework, which has largely been established since 2000, has an interest not only in cleaning up sport but in exaggerating doping in order to justify its existence and secure more funding.
Armstrong has long portrayed himself as the victim of a “witch hunt” by this system. He vigorously and unequivocally denied having taken performance-enhancing drugs. He highlighted the fact that he had never tested positive for such substances.
He apparently distrusts the system so much that this summer he refused to agree to a hearing where he could have cross-examined the former teammates and other witnesses who testified against him. Yet they described him as not only someone who used the performance-enhancing drugs himself, but who created a team culture in which it was virtually obligatory to participate in a similar doping program in order to ensure Armstrong’s success year after year at the Tour de France.
By opting out of the channels afforded to him, Armstrong made a powerful statement about perceived shortcomings in the anti-doping system. These should be examined carefully and not dismissed out of hand just because Armstrong has fallen from grace.
And while Armstrong fans have been rightly disappointed by the results of the investigation, it is important to remember that he was competing in a sport where nearly all his top competitors were very likely doping as well.
The Oct. 10 USADA report notes that from 1999 to 2005, when Armstrong won a record seven consecutive victories at the Tour de France, 20 of the 21 cyclists who finished on the podium (i.e., first, second, or third place) during those years “have been directly tied to likely doping through admissions, sanctions, public investigations” or exceeding the threshold for hematocrit, which tends to indicate the use of EPO, a popular drug for endurance athletes.
While Armstrong’s victories have been tainted, it remains a fact that he showed extraordinary courage, determination, persistence, and discipline in training and competing at such a high level for years. Now it looks as if he will have an opportunity to cultivate other qualities, such as perhaps self-examination and reflection, as he grapples with the fallout of the USADA’s probe and the consequent loss of most of his sponsors – as well as his position as chairman of Livestrong, the charitable foundation he started 15 years ago.
The former teammates and associates who came forward also have a more mixed public record, though their willingness to set the record straight sets them apart from Armstrong. Some of them, such as Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour title, had little to lose. But others who are still competing had to sit out the 2012 Olympics and face suspensions from competing because they revealed their own doping past in testifying against Armstrong.
In a sport where doping was concealed for years by a “code of silence,” the very fact that the USADA was able to put together this investigation is a testament to how far the sport has come.
And one of the chief witnesses, Jonathan Vaughters, has done much to clean up the sport in recent years by establishing the Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda team, which distinguished itself with an internal drug-testing program that went far beyond the sport’s requirements – its mission being to prove that it’s possible to compete clean at the highest levels. Last year, it won top awards for being the best team at the Tour de France.
Fans and supporters would do well to remember such accomplishments, even as they seek to glean lessons from this difficult chapter for Armstrong and the broader cycling movement.