NEW YORK — Let’s just get it out of the way at the top… Lance Armstrong is going down and he is going down hard. It’s not unreasonable to believe that jail time could be involved for the seven-time Tour de France champion when the government concludes its investigation.
See, the United States federal government does not like it when a person lies to them. It is quirky that way.
But the thing the government dislikes the most is when it doesn’t get a cut of what it believes it has coming. You know, it wants to wet its beak with a tiny bit of the proceeds as tribute for signing off on that whole Bill of Rights thing. Freedom isn’t free, as they say. It costs a mandated percentage of your yearly income unless you make so much money that you can pay an accountant to talk them down.
Think about it… when Michael Vick went to jail for nearly two years it wasn’t so much as for the dog fighting ring he was operating as it was because he didn’t pay a royalty. He served 21 months in prison for felony conspiracy in interstate commerce, which is a fancy way of saying he didn’t cut the government a slice.
What does this have to do with Lance Armstrong? Well, everything, of course. If the guy was riding for a team sponsored by the United States Postal Service, a government agency, and used the equipment supplied to him to sell for performance-enhancing drugs, well, that’s trouble. In fact, it was alleged last year by his former wing man, Floyd Landis, that Team USPS funded its drug habit by selling its equipment. This was realized, according to the accusations, when Landis wanted a training bike and couldn’t get one.
That training bike was injected as EPO.
Regardless, that’s not what this is all about. When word came out that Armstrong’s closest teammates, George Hincappie and Tyler Hamilton, testified for the federal grand jury it was pretty damning. It meant that the United States feels it had been defrauded.
Of course no one is really thinking about this as a case of fraud, though that’s clearly the undercurrent of the latest bit of cycling and doping news. After all, three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond called it at the very beginning. In 2001, shortly before Armstrong threatened to defame LeMond, the first American to win the Tour said:
"If Armstrong's clean, it's the greatest comeback. And if he's not, then it's the greatest fraud."
Actually, LeMond got it both right. Armstrong created both the greatest comeback and perpetrated the greatest fraud. His fight against cancer and the Livestrong campaign very could be the greatest and/or most important foundation founded by an athlete. It’s meaningful work that helps millions and worthy of respect and support.
Who cares if the face of the organization is a fraud, arrogant and vindictive? Or who cares that the seven-time Tour de France champion was the most powerful man in the sport and able to circumvent everything all while pulling the strings of other athletes’ livelihoods and reputations?
Case in point was the time when LeMond was critical of Armstrong’s work with renowned physician/charlatan, Dr. Michele Ferrari. Essentially, LeMond was told to never open his mouth.
"[Armstrong] basically said 'I could find 10 people that will say you took EPO'... The week after, I got multiple people that were on Lance ... Lance's camp, basically saying 'you better be quiet,' and I was quiet for three years. I have a business ... I have bikes that are sold ... and I was told that my sales might not be doing too well if ... just the publicity, the negative publicity."
Armstrong knows all too well about negative publicity. He knows it almost as well as he understands how to bend public opinion with arguments based solely on semantics, public relations and twisted facts that can never been proven. Claims of doping have followed Armstrong for more than a decade, seemingly starting with writer David Walsh who has authored several books detailing systematic and organizational doping. Through all of that, Armstrong’s minions remained steadfast in their defense of him and moved to discredit the writer when all along they knew what was going on. Perhaps the first of the inner circle to call Armstrong a doper was Betsy Andreu, wife of former teammate Frankie Andreu.
Betsy claimed she heard Armstrong tell his doctors in 1996 while undergoing cancer treatment that he took EPO, human growth hormone and steroids. Armstrong claimed that Betsy Andreu confused this with post-chemotherapy treatments where he took the drugs to help boost his red blood cells. However, in 2006 Andreu admitted that he used EPO during the 1999 Tour de France when he was riding as the “super domestique” for Armstrong on the USPS team.
It was shortly after Andreu’s admission that I spoke with Landis about Armstrong and possible secrets he might be hiding. At first the question was couched that perhaps Armstrong, one of the most famous athletes in the world, had a secret tattoo or webbed feet or something relatively benign. Instead, the response from Landis seemed to indicate that Armstrong was a jerk. Re-reading the question and answer after so many have come forward about Armstrong’s alleged doping is fascinating.
“I don’t think I know anything that anyone else knows. People have perceptions of him that might not be very accurate, but I don’t know any details that they wouldn’t know. The guy is obsessed. With whatever he does he is obsessed, and whatever he does he wants to be the best at it.
“Ultimately, he doesn’t have a lot of close friends because of it and he winds up not being the nicest guy. But that doesn’t make him a doper. That doesn’t make him a cheater. It might make him someone you don’t want to be around, but that doesn’t mean he took advantage of anyone else or that he deserves the harassment some people are giving him, like in the Walsh book.”
Not even three years later Landis said that in addition to not being a nice person, Armstrong was indeed a doper and a cheater and very well could deserve some harassment.
Doping is the name of the game
It would be tough to find any rational person to believe Armstrong’s fairy tale these days. Though he is still admired and folks still steadfastly support his cancer foundation, his continued claims that he did not dope during the course of his seven victories in the Tour de France is laughable.
The fact remains that Armstrong likely passed the drug tests because he knew how to work the system very well. The old parallel is that doping in cycling is like stealing signs or throwing spitballs in baseball—it’s only cheating if someone gets caught.
Still, to some who were clean and not quite able to reach that level of the ultra elites, it’s understandable to see why doping is offensive. If all it takes is hard training mixed with some chemistry as opposed to hard work, yeah, it stinks.
But that doesn’t make those who are clean any less naïve. The fact is cycling has always been a living chemistry lab where riders were never shy about finding an edge even if it spat in the face of the spirit of the sport. Maybe it’s human nature to cheat?
The first documented case of doping in cycling dates back to 1886 where the drugs of choice were cocaine, caffeine and strychnine. In 1896, a rider named Choppy Warburton was banned from the sport after claims of massive doping in that years' Bordeaux–Paris race. As a coach, ol’ Choppy was accused of implementing doping programs for his charges. A quick Google search of Choppy and early doping cases reveals this nugget:
“Choppy has been firmly identified as the instigator of drug-taking in the sport [cycling] in the 19th century.”
As early as the 1930s, doping in cycling was so complete that to combat it the Tour de France organizers informed the riders that they would no longer supply drugs. Still, race organizers could not have been too serious since the first anti-doping law in France did not come until the 1960s.
Regardless, it wasn’t until the past decade where the sport instituted tougher tests and even went so far as to suspend riders even when they had not flunked tests. At the same time, the measures taken on by the anti-doping agencies are both inept and draconian often seeming that the testers want to suspend as many athletes as possible to make up for lost time.
Even so, no one believes that the sport will ever really be clean. There will always be something to drink, eat, absorb or inject for the rider looking for an edge or maybe, simply, survival. The adage is that the dopers will always be one step ahead of the testers. Perhaps even there is something so new that it can’t be detected by any blood, urine or DNA test.
Then again, maybe not. Perhaps someone like Armstrong is both a hero and a villain? He very well could be the model and the cautionary tale.