In murky waters of doubt, conspiracy

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ST_lance0 (28114074) AP BETTER TIMES: Lance Armstrong on a roll. He has been banned from cycling for life after facing charges of systematic doping. Picture: AP

The

name Armstrong dominated headlines the past week. Neil remained a public hero until his end. Lance’s drug-infested career came home to roost. The level of public support for Lance Armstrong, as evidenced in website comments and polls, has been surprising.

That such support seeks to discount the compelling doping allegations against him underlines his status in the eyes of the public – for his athletic prowess as well as his courage as a cancer survivor.

In fact, these are not allegations any more – they amount to an uncontested conviction in view of Armstrong’s decision not to participate in the adjudication process. Moreover, the charge is not one of a simple doping offence – or inadvertently taking a supplement or cough remedy – it is one of a carefully planned and executed, systematic doping programme, using sophisticated drugs and methods, over nearly a decade that involved a team of experts.

David Walsh, who has written four books on Armstrong, calls it “one of the greatest, most sophisticated doping conspiracies in the history of sport”. The first big question is why Lance Armstrong, not known to walk away from a fight, declined the adjudication of an independent tribunal.

The answer is contained simply in Mark Twain’s adage: “It is better to have people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Armstrong’s refusal to participate in the process allows him to invoke doubt and conspiracy and masquerade as a victim.

Otherwise, with the evidence so compelling against him, it will unequivocally confirm to the world the veracity of the charges, with witness after witness unravelling the doping conspiracy – “fact by fact, piece by piece” – thereby breaking the once sacred omertà and crushing Armstrong’s veneer of sanctity.

In attempting to protect what remains of his legacy, Armstrong has decided to operate in the murky waters of doubt and conspiracy, using his status as a cyclist and cancer survivor to ride public sentiment and create a virtue out of his cop-out.

The current evidence against Armstrong derives from two sources – the first is that a dozen of his former teammates and support team gave evidence that Armstrong was centrally involved in systematic doping in the teams that he was involved in.

He either admitted to them, or they directly observed him using (and encouraged them to use) erythropoietin (EPO), blood transfusion, cortisone, testosterone and human growth hormone from 1996 to 2005. For this Armstrong was charged by the US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) with possession, distribution, use, administration and trafficking in prohibited substances. Additionally he was charged with assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting, covering up and other complicity in anti-doping rule violations.

These are serious charges. This scientific evidence is based on laboratory results that compared his samples taken against his “biological passport” constructed over time and a range of tests of his personal parameters. It is the equivalent of a physiological fingerprint. These allegations are not new; Armstrong was always surrounded by smoke.

Reports from French anti-doping agencies point to past positive tests that were covered up or that Armstrong was warned before being tested. Eight years ago the French anti-doping laboratory, in a retroactive analysis using new technology, detected evidence of EPO in an analysis of Armstrong’ stored samples. Floyd Landis fingered him a few years ago in an interview with US federal authorities.

In 1999, the year of his first Tour win, it is alleged that he “bullied” a young French cyclist, Christophe Bassons, who raised concerns about doping on the Tour. Emma O’Reilly, team masseuse, reported that she had heard team officials discussing how to get around Armstrong’s positive test for steroids, and described how she was asked to travel to Spain to deliver “material” across the French border. However, Armstrong’s political power and spin-machinery allow him to deflect these issues.

Does Armstrong’s claim that he was tested over 500 times but never returned a positive test present a compelling case for his innocence? The limitations of anti-doping agencies in detecting prohibited substances through sample collection are well known. We return a 1-2 percent positive rate where notionally we believe that at least 10 to 20 percent of elite athletes are doping.

Olympic gold medallist Marion Jones was tested as much as Armstrong, but did not return a single positive test. She was banned as a result of the Balco scandal, which uncovered systematic doping, largely by US athletes, using “designer steroids” that could not be detected.

Thus not testing positive is not equal to not doping – it simply attests to the sophistication of the dopers.

In recognising the limitations of sample testing, anti-doping agencies are investing more resources in the “biological passport” programme and into intelligence collection. The successful prosecution of Armstrong can be attributed to this paradigm shift. While Armstrong has retired from cycling, his lifetime ban will affect his new career as an elite triathlete. He will be unable to participate, compete, coach or be involved in any organised sport for the rest of his life.

By not taking up his opportunity to face a tribunal he has also waived his right to an appeal process. Also, being stripped of these titles would logically require the prize money to be returned.

Attempting to reconfigure the winners of all these events will also be a difficult task. Event organisers could leave a lasting legacy to this sorry saga by leaving blank the winner’s name of the events where Armstrong’s is erased.

This is not the end of the legal process. More is to come. His former team manager Johan Bruyneel and his trainer Dr Michele Ferrari have decided to proceed with their respective cases, which will continue to throw light on the history of Armstrong. It is really disappointing that the International Cycling Union entered the fray in challenging Usada’s jurisdiction. This was probably an attempt to protect the sport rather than ensure its ethical pursuit.

The Tour’s recent history has not been a good one, with Landis, Alberto Contador and Frank Schleck sullying its present. Armstrong has done far worse for its past and for his legacy – built on questionable foundations. Hopefully this becomes a salutary lesson for future champions. Armstrong’s legacy is in ruins.

Those who continue to support him should finally realise that it should be about the bike and not the boosters. And that they have been taken for a ride!


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