Sports Illustrated, in its January 24, 2011, issue, published an article titled “The Case Against Lance Armstrong” by Selena Roberts and David Epstein. This article summarizes and focuses the current state of public knowledge about an ongoing federal investigation of allegations about doping by Lance Armstrong and by the teams with which he was associated. Armstrong has been a professional cyclist since 1991, after an adolescence of winning junior-level triathlons. He achieved considerable success, including a top professional ranking in 1996, before being diagnosed with cancer later that year. After a remarkable recovery from cancer he resumed racing in 1998 and, as they say, the rest is history. He won the Tour de France seven straight years before retiring after the 2005 Tour. He continued to race and staged a professional comeback in 2009-10, finishing third in the Tour in 2009.
Almost ever since he returned to the sport after cancer and began winning Tours, Lance has been accused of doping to enhance his performance. Although as he has often stated, he never has tested positive for drugs, has never been sanctioned or suspended, during his entire career, spanning 20 years so far. It has been easy enough to attribute the accusations to national jealousies (the French), embittered rivals (Greg LeMond), or broken friendships (Frankie Andreu, Floyd Landis). But the current investigation, led by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, brings a weight and gravitas to the situation. A Federal investigation is never a laughing matter, and the agent leading it is a hard-nosed and persistent investigator. So what will they find? Will there be enough grand jury evidence for an indictment? Will there be enough trial evidence for a conviction?
One curious thing about Lance’s career, an aspect that typifies the ambivalence of the current controversy about his supposed drug use, is the significant number of Lance’s teammates who have tested positive for drug use after they left Lance’s team for other professional cycling opportunities. Lance’s “super-domestique” in his early Tours, Tyler Hamilton, was disgraced a couple of years back by failing drug tests a second time after serving a two-year suspension for blood doping and then resuming racing on a team filled with pro cycling “bad boys,” Rock Racing. Hamilton’s replacement as super-domestique, Roberto Heras, also fell into disgrace after “winning” the Vuelta a España for the fourth time, the first year after he no longer raced with Lance. Floyd Landis, who left for the now-defunct Phonak team and “won” the Tour the year after Lance retired, was the biggest disgrace of all, having a testosterone level of 11 times normal on the day he made an amazing breakaway ride to recoup time he had lost the day before when he hit the wall on the last climb. And it looks very much as though Alberto Contador will be suffering the same fate, though in his case Lance left Astana to form the Radio Shack team while Contador stayed. Bitter rival teammate of Lance in 2009, Contador ingested clenbuterol during the Tour’s first rest day in 2010, when he was a rival but not a teammate. He’ll not race this year, and will likely lose his 2010 Yellow Jersey, thereby imperiling severely his chances of equalling or besting Lace’s seven Yellows. And in any case, they’ll not be “in a row.” Perhaps these riders came under more pressure without the support of a champion presence in Lance, high-quality teammates and directeur sportif, and the intensity that Lance evidently brings to every enterprise. Or perhaps they lost the cadre of expert dopers who could guide them flawlessly through intricate routines. It would be interesting to know what other former Armstrong teammates who have never tested positive, such as George Hincapie, Kevin Livingston, and Jose-Luis Rubiera, have testified.
So where does this leave us in an assessment of Lance? It seems to me that it’s difficult to approach this set of circumstantial evidence, along with all that presented in the SI article, from a neutral perspective. Either we suspect that Lance is a doper, and all this contextual stuff proves it despite the fact he’s never tested positive, or we suspect Lance is an excellent athlete who competed in an era of widespread drug use and is getting tarred by the same brush. It’s certainly true that when one watches the DVDs of Lance’s Tour victories, one inevitably begins mentally ticking off the riders in a key leaders’ group on a mountain climb: this one ended up serving a two-year suspension; that one retired after testing positive; the guy in magenta wasn’t there the year before because he was suspended; etc. Nearly every one of them except Lance was proven to be a doper at some point during that era. But the same DVDs show in Lance a rider with complete mastery over all his best rivals, able to call his own shots and toy with every competitor.
Was Lance the only one of his contemporaries good enough to be clean, or the only one smart and lucky enough not to get caught? Floyd Landis has detailed the careful regimen of times and doses involved in virtually undetectable micro-doping. If Floyd was so bloody knowledgable, why was he stupid enough to get caught with eleven times the predicted amount of testosterone in his system? Doesn’t sound like that one was a micro-dose. How rash, foolish or impatient does one have to be to violate a system one allegedly knows will work every time? And on the other hand, there’s all this circumstantial evidence that links Lance to dubious doctors, needles and refuse dumped in trash bins in the dead of night, calibrations of wattage levels that are impossible to achieve unaided, surprise tests avoided, statements made in hospitals, and the like.
SI‘s “The Case Against Lance Armstrong” essentially recombines former facts with some new wrinkles, but no blockbuster revelations. The chronology casts a curious pattern. So much of the best circumstantial evidence refers to Lance’s pre-cancer career, 1996 and before. Thus it does not pertain to allegations of abuse of federal money received through U. S. Postal Service cycling sponsorship, which occurred between 1999 and 2004. Some of the statements made by former riders and associates of Armstrong’s don’t ring true, such as Andreu’s assertion that Lance “called the shots” on the Motorola team in 1995, determining who was hired and fired. Or Mike Anderson, the disgruntled (because Lance decided not to set him up with a bike shop!) ex-companion who claims to have seen a box with the name of a drug on it in Lance’s Spanish home. There’s not much in the article to flesh out the unsupported sweeping claim in the subtitle that Armstrong doped “while winning Tour de France championships.” The most cogent accusations that could be drawn from the evidence would seem to relate to the persistent association of team management with advisors and doctors like Ferrari, and the absence of a strong anti-doping orientation on teams with which Lance was associated. I think a case tilted in that direction might gain some traction, but what illegal activity exactly would management be accused of? I don’t see much of anything in SI that might prove trafficking, conspiracy, or the like. Uncorroborated assertions do not prove that Armstrong doped during the Tour. There are a few old urine samples, but drug testing has the “B” sample requirement for a reason, and that can’t be waived simply because somebody wishes it could be, thinks it should be, or “knows” the accused is guilty even when agreed-upon standards of evidence don’t show it.
Armstrong has demonstrated incontrovertibly that he is a superbly fit and highly motivated athlete, disciplined and in control of himself at all times, not self-indulgent in matters of comfort or effort. The combination of ability and desire might argue less need for enhanced performance, though it could indicate a willingness to win at all costs. He is fortunate to fall under American law in the present circumstances, since under that law the principle of innocent until proven guilty prevails. In European law and in international drug prevention circles the opposite is often true. Cyclists are accused of doping and must prove their innocence to avoid sanctions. The press and administrators in the sport leak allegations, treat innuendo as fact, and appear unwilling to require hard evidence or to investigate the matter with impartial judicial standards.
If Lance Armstrong is convicted in an American judicial procedure, I will consider him guilty as charged. But I don’t think he will be. And all of us will be left with our own opinions about whether he doped, based on our deepest a priori premises.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.