A Bad Day for Heroes

My initial and continued interest in the sport of cycling can be attributed to two men: my father and Lance Armstrong. I first watched Armstrong in 2004 when he won his sixth Tour de France title. My father, an avid fan and participant of the sport, casually mentioned that the man in yellow had been diagnosed with cancer not eight years before.

I found this inexplicable. How difficult must it be for a man in peak physical condition to finish the Tour, let alone one who had battled with an all-too-often fatal illness? I may have been late to the party, but it was then that I realised that Lance Armstrong is a remarkable man.

Remarkable though he is, Armstrong is now no longer the seven time winner of the Tour de France. On Friday the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) declared the titles won by the Texan from 1999-2005 vacant. The announcement came after Armstrong chose not to fight charges of doping, drug trafficking and covering up perhaps the largest conspiracy in sports history.

The charges implicated five other men who were part of Armstrong’s cycling team, US Postal Service (latterly known as Discovery Channel). Armstrong did file two separate federal lawsuits against USADA, on the grounds that they impeded his right to due process and acted out with their jurisdiction, but both cases have been thrown out of court. Rather than take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Armstrong announced on Thursday that he will no longer spend time and money in fighting what he called: “an unconstitutional witch hunt.”

Friday was certainly a bad day for childhood heroes, but a good day for a sport plagued by cheating which has been endemic for hundreds of years, from the early days of strychnine and booze to modern ‘blood doping’ and EPO. Travis Tygart, the CEO of USADA said on Friday: “it’s not a good day for anybody…including myself who stood in awe of his accomplishments. Unfortunately they were done against the rules”.

Although this is the first formal charge brought against Armstrong, the case against him has been building for years. The first to make substantiated allegations against the cyclist was the French sports paper, L’Equippe. In 2005 the paper ran with the headline ‘The Armstrong Lie’ reporting that the French national anti-doping laboratory retested urine samples belonging to Armstrong from the ‘99 Tour de France as part of an investigation into EPO testing methods.  Using new technology, the laboratory found that six of the samples contained EPO. There was also the tireless work carried out by the investigative journalists David Walsh and Pierre Ballesteros. In their 2006 book, L.A. Confidential, they boldly declare Armstrong a cheat drawing on testimony from his former masseuse, Emma O‘Reilly, and a wealth of circumstantial evidence.

Whilst this announcement has an air of finality about it this issue is far from over. There are many who are asking what is to be done about the seven vacant titles. The answer to that is simple: nothing. If Armstrong didn’t win those Tours then no-one did. The likes of Ivan Basso, Jan Ulrich and Alex Zulle finished directly behind Armstrong, but all have been found guilty of their own doping allegations. It would be both wrong and asinine to go through the list of competitors who finished behind Lance and pick out one to be awarded a retrospective yellow jersey, particularly since a number of them were also doping.

The most pressing issue now is what action, if any, will be taken by the five others implicated in the conspiracy. Among those implicated is the Belgian Johan Bruyneel, former team director of US Postal. Bruyneel’s former riders have accused him of encouraging the use of banned substances, and providing them with the substances themselves. The same accusation has been levied against Dr. Michel Ferrari, the former team consulting doctor. Furthermore, both men have been charged of teaching riders how to avoid detection and attempting to cover up the conspiracy. Both men are still actively involved in the world of cycling, so it is unclear as to whether or not they will contest these allegations. If they do, evidence against these men, and possibly Armstrong, will come out in public.

Still, even after this decision by USADA, Armstrong is still regarded as a hero by many of his countrymen. For them, it appears that nothing short of fresh, tangible proof in the form of a positive doping test will sway their opinion of ‘Mellow Johnny’ (from the French maillot jaune, meaning yellow jersey). There is little doubt in my mind that Armstrong was doping during his reign of supremacy in cycling. However, by declining his day in court, he has prevented all of the evidence against him to be presented in a public forum, at least for now. If Bruyneel and Ferarri decide to challenge the action then USADA will have the opportunity to display the entirety of its information, and that may just be the key to bringing down this fourteen year conspiracy.

by Danny Brown

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