Why Lance Armstrong was put in the stocks

The very public humiliation of the former cycling hero reveals how the anti-doping obsession has spread suspicion through the sports world.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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In a report of around 1,000 pages, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has done what many, it seems, have wanted it to do for several years: it has let a harsh daylight in upon the dark magic of former US cyclist Lance Armstrong. The man who now stands before us is not a sporting great, apparently; he is a cheat, a bully, a fraud. His seven Tour de France titles were not the result of superhuman effort and dedication, but of ‘systematic’ doping. ‘I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles’, said Armstrong to his doubters after his seventh and final Tour de France win in 2005. Today, it appears that no one believes in Lance Armstrong.

Which is a crying shame, because Armstrong’s is one hell of a story. Back in the mid-1990s, the then twentysomething was a talented if mercurial road racer. Yeah, he might win a stage on the Tour de France, but the whole 21 days and 2,000 miles of vicious vertical climbs and bone-shredding sprinting? Not a chance. The prospect of victory receded yet further when in 1996 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which was so far advanced he was given less than a 50-50 chance of survival.

But Armstrong didn’t only survive; he prospered. In 1998, he returned to cycling as part of the US Postal Service-sponsored cycling team. In 1999, he won his first Tour de France, making him only the second American to do so. And he didn’t stop there. He won the Tour de France for seven consecutive years. By the early 2000s, Armstrong was not just a great cyclist, he was a global phenomenon, his fame, not to mention his cancer charity, wrapped large around millions of wrists in the form of the then ubiquitous Livestrong wristband. Like Muhammad Ali or Pele, Armstrong was one of those athletes who had somehow transcended his sport. The majority of us might not be able to tell a pelaton from a pedalo, but we knew who Lance Armstrong was.

But there was always a taint to the Armstrong tale. Right from the start of his post-cancer ascendancy, his achievements, his ‘miracles’, were never really taken at face value. Such questioning was not limited to Armstrong, of course. Today the sporting spectacle is so corroded by suspicions of doping that heroism is nigh on impossible. Feet of clay, and bodies filled with pharmaceuticals, are suspected even when there is no evidence, as happened this summer when the 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen came out of nowhere to win two golds at the London Olympics. Within hours of her victory, the director of the World Swimming Coaches’ Association had called it ‘impossible’, and the BBC’s swimming commentator suggested questions should be asked.

Still, the logic at work in the Armstrong case is frightening for its cynicism: by dint of his awe-inspiring victories in the face of all manner of adversity, Armstrong was automatically deemed suspicious. By exceeding expectations, Armstrong invited the attentions of officialdom.

And that is what is strange about the Armstrong case. For years, the conviction voiced in books and documentaries that he must be on drugs preceded any genuine grounds on which to be suspicious. After all, this was a man who passed over 500 drugs tests, carried out during day and night, in or out of competition. There was every reason to presume innocence, and none to attribute guilt. And yet, the determination to presume guilt, to dig for dirt, was too strong. All it took for not only the USADA but, incredibly, federal authorities in the US to launch respective investigations was a bit of hearsay. Because that is what Armstrong’s former teammate Floyd Landis’s tell-all in May 2010 was for the authorities: hearsay. Yes, Landis, who had recently been found guilty of doping himself, claimed that Armstrong used to use performance-enhancing drugs. But should Landis’s word on Armstrong’s guilt really have been enough to contradict all the actual evidence to the contrary?

Yes, seems to be the answer for the USADA and the federal authorities. Admittedly, the federal criminal investigation was not actually into doping allegations; it was into potential wire fraud, mail fraud, witness tampering and drug distribution, with the focus on whether Armstrong’s cycling team had obtained money by deceiving sponsors, including the US Postal Service. But the impetus for the investigation clearly rested on the suspicion that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs. And it was here, before the grand jury convened by federal investigators, that witnesses, many of whom were incriminated ex-teammates of Armstrong’s, provided in secret the anecdotal evidence which was to form the backbone of the USADA’s report.

This is where it gets interesting. Why did the USADA take up where the federal authorities had left off? Because, in February this year, the federal authorities dropped the case without charging Armstrong. The principal federal investigator’s statement was perfunctory: ‘The United States Attorney determined that a public announcement concerning the closing of the investigation was warranted by numerous reports about the investigation in media outlets around the world.’ But the unspoken subtext was clear: there was insufficient evidence to find Armstrong guilty in a court of law.

And with this failure to gather evidence that would stand up in court, this inability to erect a case against Armstrong that could meet the rules designed to ensure the credibility of evidence, the fate of Armstrong was passed into the far less rigorous, far more arbitrary hands of the USADA. As USADA chief executive, Travis Tygvart, said at the time: ‘Our investigation into doping in the sport of cycling is continuing, and we look forward to obtaining the information developed during the federal investigation.’ Obtain it they did. Not only that, but the USADA’s own court of arbitration, not beholden to any such notions as due process or even justice, had few qualms about using similar evidence to that collated before the grand jury to find Armstrong guilty of doping offences. Which is precisely what it did in August this year. Armstrong’s refusal to fight the charges, on the basis that he wouldn’t be able to ‘confront these allegations in a fair setting’, allowed the USADA effectively to determine Armstrong’s guilt, and to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles.

What is shocking about this is that, in judicial terms, Armstrong was right: he wouldn’t have been able to challenge the USADA’s judgment in a fair setting. The chief reason why, as former federal prosecutor Bruce Deming has pointed out, is that none of the putative witnesses would have been available for cross-examination. That is, the opportunity to interrogate the evidence, to test the credibility of the witnesses, could be withheld by the USADA’s court of arbitration. For the USADA, written, potentially scripted affidavits from witnesses would suffice.

Now, six weeks after the original judgement against Armstrong, the USADA has seen fit to publish its report explaining why it came to the decision it did. Again, what is odd about this mish-mash of anecdotage and occasional fact, including 26 witness statements, is that it came so long after Armstrong was judged guilty. In fact, of the 26 witness statements, 24 were signed after the August judgment – that is, after Armstrong revealed he was not contesting allegations. As Armstrong’s legal team were quick to point out, it looks like the USADA judged Armstrong and then gathered and firmed up evidence after the fact. Which, given the presumption of guilt which has informed this whole overblown pursuit of Armstrong, is perhaps apt.

And so the USADA, like a commissar straight out of Arthur Koestler’s Stalin-era novel Darkness at Noon, has its man at last. He may never have had the chance to prove his innocence, to question those who would see him metaphorically hanged – but then why would the USADA and Armstrong’s now unquestioning army of executioners care about justice? From the start, his guilt was a given. The merest semblance of proof could come later. He was judged as a wrongdoer, without any real evidence of wrongdoing. Whatever one thinks of the Armstrong case, and there is now a lot of ill feeling towards him, his treatment, the ease with which he has been judged a sports cheat, a liar, a bully and a megalomaniac, ought to set alarm bells ringing.

But it seems that very few alarms have sounded. Instead, Armstrong’s identity as the ringleader of one of ‘the biggest ever conspiracies in sport’ has been cemented. One newspaper columnist even acknowledged the witch-hunting nature of the anti-Armstrong pursuit, but concluded that it was justified because Armstrong turned out to be a witch – which is the same logic deployed by torturers when brutalising suspects into confessions. Others talk darkly of Armstrong as a force of drug-taking evil, the locus of all that was wrong with cycling throughout the murky, doped days of the 1990s and 2000s. ‘The power of Lance’, one embittered ex-rider called it.

Here’s another word that applies to Armstrong: scapegoat. By casting Armstrong out into the public wilderness, much as ancient communities used to cast out goats, figuratively burdened with the sins of society, sporting officialdom and its coterie of ex-professionals and journalistic hangers-on seem to believe that cycling has been cleansed, purged. Sacrificing Armstrong saves cycling.

But this is not true. And not just because the existence of anti-doping bodies, and the high-profile nature of their crusades, is actually the source of the suspicion that athletes are all on something. It’s also not true because a sportsman’s desire to get ahead of an opponent, to push his body to its limit, even if that involves thickening the blood to near fatal levels with extra red blood cells, is something that is built into the competitive ethos of sport. As Harold Connelly, the 1956 Olympics hammer thrower, declared to the US Senate Committee in 1973: ‘The overwhelming majority of athletes I know would do anything, and take anything, short of killing themselves, to improve performance.’

The question, then, that really needs to be asked is this: what is the big deal about performance-enhancing drugs? Athletes by their very nature are constantly trying to enhance their performance, whether it’s through state-of-the-art, high-altitude training facilities, the latest dietary regimes, or the most up-to-date equipment. Indeed cycling, from the strychnine-dominated days of the first Tour, has always featured people prepared to go to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of glory. So why should some performance enhancements be legal and others not? The whole discussion about drugs in sport, the obsession with appearing clean, is in danger of ruining the sporting spectacle. Perhaps it already has, given every remarkable athletics feat has now become a source of suspicion, not admiration. The fact that Daley Thompson, an incredible competitor himself, is now urging mediocrity is telling: ‘I would prefer to see [British cyclist Bradley] Wiggins stay clean and perhaps go a bit slower than see those other frauds recording faster times.’ That is, the only way to be above suspicion is to perform unexceptionally.

But surely trying to be the fastest or the strongest or the best is the point of competition? Instead of obsessing about what sportsmen do off the track or field in order to get ahead on it, let’s focus instead on the sports spectacle itself. That way, maybe, we might be allowed to believe in miracles again.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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