Say It Ain't So, Lance

September 10, 2012

Alas, Lance Armstrong won't be saying anything. The most celebrated cyclist ever to wear the Stars and Stripes has decided that he is better off hoping for a win in the Court of US Public Opinion than risking a hearing with the US Anti-Doping Agency.

Armstrong has been fighting a lengthy battle with the USADA, which alleges that he used illegal drugs, and illegal blood enrichment. Although he passed many standard drug tests year after year, numerous eyewitnesses, particularly his former teammates, have come forward to testify that they saw him doping, and that he provided banned substances to them. It is no secret that detection technology lags far behind the chemistry of enhancement. Athletes have far more money to acquire the latest juices than the testing bodies have to detect them.

Armstrong sued the USADA in an attempt to halt the case against him, but US District Judge Sam Sparks angrily threw it out, and blasted the seven-time Tour de France champion. Sparks wrote that the case was full of legally irrelevant claims "included solely to increase media coverage of this case" and stir up hostility toward the USADA. "This court is not inclined to indulge Armstrong's desire for publicity, self-aggrandizement, or vilification of defendants, by sifting through 80 mostly unnecessary pages in search of the few kernels of factual material relevant to his claims."

Armstrong has retired from competition, and has been concentrating on his fundraising for cancer research. But rather than show his millions of trusting supporters, who wear those bright yellow rubber bracelets, that their cheers were not misplaced, and who want to believe that his victories were not tainted, he has simply walked away. He will no longer challenge the USADA charges against him, prompting the agency to void his victories dating to 1998, including all seven Tour wins, and ban him from any further competition for life. No hearing, no due process. But no defense offered either. (The ban also applies to any sport that uses the USADA, such as marathons, which Armstrong had hoped to run.)

But Lance anticipated that decision, and was prepared. He claimed that only The International Cycling Union has that power...and the ICU at first agreed. That position was backed by USA Cycling, the official cycling organization recognized by the US Olympic Committee. He is America's hero in a decidedly European sport. Take that, Vincenzo, Jurgen, and Pierre. But the ICU now has said that they will honor the ruling, and not appeal it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, headquartered in Switzerland. Regardless, Armstrong could simply ignore their authority too. The medals and trophies are in his living room, and he still bills himself as The Man.

In late August, Lance introduced himself as a seven-time Tour de France champion at a cancer conference in Montreal. "My name is Lance Armstrong. I am a cancer survivor," he said to open his speech to the World Cancer Congress. "I'm a father of five. And yes, I won the Tour de France seven times." Armstrong still has the support of Nike, his biggest sponsor, and partner in the Livestrong line.

Cycling is a sport where doping has become more the norm than the exception. In fact, of the 19 winners of the Tour de France since 1974, only 7 have never tested positive for banned substances. Sanctions as serious as imprisonment have been levied on many of the top 10 finishers at the Tour de France from 1998 - 2005: four from 2001; five from 1998, 1999, and 2004; six from 2000, and 2002; and eight from 2003 and 2005. Forty-seven out of 80.

If Armstrong is guilty as charged, he is in crowded, if not good, company. Cyclists are basically giant heart muscles with legs, and with millions of dollars in prize money, endorsements, and sponsorships at stake, the competitors seek any advantage to pump their body parts faster, and mask the intense pain of competitions that are often measured in days, over hundreds of miles.

It would seem that Nike (which stands to lose considerable profits if the Livestrong name is discredited), and the US agencies demonstrating misplaced patriotism, are doing a real disservice to sports in general, and cycling in particular. If the point is to clean up competition, and base victories on actual performance rather than who can best hide banned substances, allowing Armstrong to "succeed" by wrapping himself in the US flag, and the cancer cure banner, sends the wrong message to everyone.

If the perp here was any Tom, Dick, or Henri, those medals and trophies would already be back in the Tour's hands.

My 35-year old son trains performers, and sent me his thoughts on how the Armstrong saga is enmeshed in sports history:

It's another dark day for sports and athletes everywhere. Lance Armstrong joins an unfortunately long list of athletes punished after the end of their careers for alleged performance-enhancing drug (PED) abuse, even though they never tested positive. I think there are four important morals to extract from the whole debacle.

Moral One: You can't rewrite history, or can you? Don't get me wrong, it sounds like he probably did use PEDs, just like Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and Roger Clemens before him. However, unlike Ben Johnson, Rafael Palmero, and Floyd Landis, our friends Armstrong, Bonds, and Clemens were never caught, and went on winning, and setting records, until they retired. There is a degree of fair play to that. Take for example the 49er-Giants NFC Divisional Playoff game in Jan of 2003. The ref clearly made the wrong call on the last play, and the NFL even acknowledged it the next day. But in respect for the integrity of a game played by, and officiated by, humans, the ruling made on the field stood. Declaring a new winner after the fact, like the Tour de France is doing, is a real slippery slope. Should we go back through the tapes of all old sporting events, correcting the officiating errors and disqualifying the players who later fell from grace? The record books would be completely re-written, and no result would ever really be final. I think a better lesson for young athlete is that it's ok to get the call wrong, and just move on.

Which bring us to Moral Two: Winning isn't everything, or is it? Stripping Armstrong of his titles after the fact really just serves to say, "you didn't win". This only reinforces the point that winning is the most important thing in sports. But we have to ask ourselves: If winning at all costs wasn't held in such unreasonably high regard, would athletes really ruin their bodies and minds with dangerous drugs to achieve it? A more meaningful consequence would be to require him to use his considerable winnings and influence to promote sportsmanship and clean competition, not just passion for winning.

Moral Three: The punishment shall fit the crime, or shall it? In reality, the sanctions against Lance Armstrong hurt just about everyone except Lance Armstrong. Lance already made his money and fame, and stripping him of past titles really has no effect on that. The people who suffer are the hardworking and honest cyclists, coaches and support personnel who have to continue to make their living in a sport that seems to reach new heights of tarnish every year. Banning him for life is fine, but there were many clean and upstanding members of his championship teams. Letting the titles stand, but redistributing his winnings to them, would be much more just.

Moral Four: Play nice, kids. Does anyone really think it's a coincidence that Bonds, Armstrong, Jones, and Clemens were hunted and harassed with allegations for years after they finished competing? It's not like they are the only highly accomplished athletes that were ever suspected of PED use. What do they have in common? They all treated the media and their fans with a distant and sour disregard that forged a deep resentment toward them as people. It's not written anywhere that athlete need to be nice to people. Though it should be noted that with a personality as embittering as Lance Armstrong, it's understandable why so many people went to such lengths to see him disgraced, no matter how unjust it is.