The Lance Factor VII:  Whistle-Blowers or Stoolies?

The last time I wrote about Lance Armstrong and his impact on bike racing (6/1/2011), I was contemplating charges made in public (by some) and before a grand jury (by others) by former members of Lance’s professional cycling teams.  They all attested to the presence of performance-enhancing drug use on those teams, and of Lance using his powerful influence to quash suspicious test results.  Since then the federal investigation of Lance has concluded without any charges being issued.  Most observers thought that the entire investigation was a waste of taxpayer money.  The prevailing sentiment was that the era between 1992 and 2007, when many individual riders and teams were apparently using drugs, should not be revived for further scrutiny, because now a new ethos and testing process are in use.

But the USADA (United States Anti-Drug Agency) has opened its own investigation of the matter, using some of the federal evidence.  The problem is that the USADA has neither the power nor the responsibility under law that the federal government does.  It cannot send Armstrong to prison.  Yet it can strip him of all his titles, even those not won under USADA jurisdiction, and essentially destroy his reputation and obscure the significance of his achievements.  And it does not have to follow the same protocols of due process or validity of evidence that the federal court system must.  Lance ironically, in some ways, is more vulnerable and less able to defend himself than he would be in a federal court.  And thus it is not surprising that his lawyers have sought to make this a legal issue by moving it to the federal courtroom.  They are suing the USADA, challenging the legitimacy of its methods and procedures, and seeking a restraining order against the proceedings against Armstrong.  This could drag on longer than the Contador matter.

Just as the Tour began this year, a European newspaper leaked the names of some of those associates of Lance who had given Grand Jury testimony against him.  The fact that these things always arise right as the Tour is ready to start shows how the media seek topics that are “timely” in a way that emphasizes publicity rather than social justice, and also shows how interest groups, knowing that about the media, use the instincts of the media to advance their own causes.

The five named associates are riders Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, and Christian Vande Velde, and ex-rider and present Garmin Directeur Sportif Jonathan Vaughters.  The latter has been an outspoken anti-drug figure in cycling for several years; the others have kept a low profile about the issue, to the best of my knowledge.  None has ever tested positive for drugs.  Yet all of them admitted to using drugs, and all the riders apparently will be getting six-month suspensions, conveniently beginning on September 1, by which time the season is winding down, in exchange for their testimony.

Are these guys honorable whistle-blowers, taking a stand for clean sports, or detestable rat-fink stoolies?  I go with the latter.  They all go back well over a decade with Lance.  Hincapie rode on Lance’s team for every one of his seven Tour victories.  Over the years each of them has benefited from his association with Lance, both professionally and financially.  Hincapie, for instance, has a line of cycling clothing that he supplies to certain first-line cycling teams.  He wouldn’t have had the reputation and credibility to make that business succeed simply by winning Ghent-Wevelgem and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne once each.  He made his name riding on the front of the U. S. Postal train in the Tour de France, setting an infernal pace to weaken Lance’s opposition.

When the Feds came and said to Hincapie, and to the others, “we have evidence of drugging in U. S. Postal, and we know you were involved.  But we’re really after Lance Armstrong and (coach) Johan Bruyneel, so tell us what you know and we’ll give you only a minor suspension,” they moved to save their own skins.  Whistle-blowers observe corruption, are not involved in it, and come forward of their own volition.  The morality of their motives is evident.  At best, the morality of this group is ambiguous.  If, and it’s a big “if,” their testimony provides a “smoking gun,” they will have done their bit for drug-free sporting.  But they also have shown themselves to have been uninterested in doing so until threatened with their own punishment.  Having profited for years from being associated with Armstrong’s successes, under pressure they reveal themselves as moral cowards.

When the news broke last week Hincapie at least commented that he felt sorry that Lance that had to go through this, and that Lance had achieved amazing things and done much good for his sport.  Leipheimer, Zabriskie, and Vaughters all said in effect that they were busy with the Tour and had nothing to say.  Vande Velde was too far down the General Classification to be reached.

TdF 2012 First Rest Day Stoolie placings:

19  Leipheimer  8:34
49  Hincapie  25:25
81 Vande Velde  36:16
116  Zabriskie  44:12

21 (out of 22)  Garmim-Sharp (DS Vaughters)  1:25:42

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

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2 thoughts on “The Lance Factor VII:  Whistle-Blowers or Stoolies?

  1. I was under the impression that this whole rumor about these guys admitting to doping and accepting reduced penalties was at this point nothing more than unsubstantiated/unconfirmed rumors, appearing in a couple of sports rags. I keep hearing about how European “news” media are held to higher standards and how their libel laws are stronger but I don’t see it in practice. Here we have self-proclaimed “fair and balanced” cable “news”, there they can print whatever they want, whenever they want.

    On the other hand, the responses from these individuals and their managers seemed a lot more like ‘no comment’ than ‘it’s a lie’.

    Not sure what the somewhat unsurprising lackluster performance of aging athletes has to do with the anti-doping morass — as if moral inferiority has something to do with their current performance. To be fair to Garmin-Sharp, it’s no surprise that their team ranking is in the crapper after losing their two best riders (Hesjedal and Danielson) to crashes. It has been my impression that since team inception, the non-Brunyeel American teams (Slipstream/Garmin, HTC, etc.) have been particularly outspoken about racing clean, which I think is fairly commendable…even if some of their riders are either admitted past dopers (Millar) or in-the-closet past dopers.

    This does take on the appearance of a vendetta, and I am left wondering who thinks this is worth the cost and is paying for it — I believe this is at least partially funded by tax dollars. I want clean sports as much as anyone else but this stuff needs to be relegated to history. I am not somebody who really believes Lance or many of his teammates are innocent. Nor do I believe his rivals were clean — so if you strip him of his titles, you’re basically granting a bunch of titles to riders who lost on the road and were likely just as dirty. We all know that steroid use was rampant back in MLB and NFL, and even if we believe the sports to be cleaner now, we accept that the playing field was level enough back then — and that was then, this is now. Nobody is stripping titles away from players/teams in those sports.

  2. I was basing my assessment on precisely what you observe, that nobody is denying anything having to do with the testimony or the punishment. You make an excellent point about the relative freedom of the European media to fabricate material. Notice that I say “relative,” since fabrication is not unknown in these parts.

    My linkage of performance to morality was facetious, but again you have a good insight that the whole thing might be weighing on them. More likely, though, it’s just age with these guys. Chris Horner, who said recently he did not think Lance cheated, is doing no better. I would like to see a whole bevy of fresh-legged American youngsters in European racing. Maybe that’s coming with the Taylor Phinney/Ben King class.

    Also as you point out, Garmin has had a horrendous problem with crash injuries during this Tour, much as RadioShack had last year. In fact, the whole Tour is eccentric (in the literal sense) because of the weak field. The two best professional stage race riders were absent from the first. As we said in 1999, however, you can only race against the ones who are there. Wiggins could be the first since Indurain to win as a pure time trialist, if he can keep pace in the mountains. But he’s such an unknown factor. I am not convinced that the time gaps he has mean much, despite the fact that some real experts, such as one M. T. Gilchrist, have pretty much conceded him the victory. We should know quite a bit more by Friday morning.

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