How the wheels of justice turned

The long struggle to connect Lance Armstrong with doping finally came to an effective halt last Friday afternoon with the announcement that the federal investigation into the seven-times Tour de France winner had been abandoned after the best part of two years. It feels like the end of an era, if not the end of the connection between bike racing and illegal performance enhancers, as could be seen by this week’s conclusion to the long-running Alberto Contador affair, in which the Spaniard was given a two-year ban.

But Armstrong’s historic series of victories in the biggest of all bike races — the only one with a recognition factor among the general public — will stand for ever in the record books, alongside the five wins of the late Jacques Anquetil, the man who said: “You do not win the Tour de France on mineral water alone.” It was a brusque acknowledgement of behaviour that had been accepted since the earliest days of the sport.

Half a century ago, Anquetil rode in an era when riders took all sorts of stuff, including amphetamines, cocaine and heroin, to make them go faster and increase their resistance to the terrible pain of hauling themselves up the mountains day after day. History accepts those circumstances, to the extent that no one would wish to see the record books altered to expunge the records of men who are universally regarded as heroes of a more romantic age.

It could be that Armstrong, who competed at a time when the use of steroids and human growth hormone and the technique of blood doping were at their most widespread, may become the subject of a similar moral amnesty in the mind of future generations: whether he did it or not (and he has always emphatically denied the accusations and never tested positive), pretty well everyone else was at it, those were the times he lived in and his achievements were immense by any ­standards, never mind by those of a man who had recovered from a near-fatal brush with cancer.

But it is not quite as simple as that. Doping was not outlawed in Anquetil’s time; he was breaking no rules. Since the death of Tom Simpson in 1967 attitudes have changed and hardened, particularly since the introduction of sophisticated doping products, the long-term effects of which could only be guessed.

The isolated death of a man fuddled with amphetamine and alcohol and exerting himself too much in furnace-like conditions on the exposed slopes of Mont Ventoux was one thing. A group of young riders dying in their sleep 20 years ago, their hearts no longer able to pump their artificially thickened blood through their veins, is quite another.

Tolerance of the old ways belongs to the old days; it has no place in the present and a serial offender such as Riccardo Riccò is held in general contempt. Despite the remarkable story of his recovery from surgery to brain, lungs and testicles, Armstrong’s personal behaviour did not encourage the sort of sympathy so freely granted to Anquetil and the men with whom he raced.

The Texan’s persecution of those who campaigned against doping is a permanent stain on his reputation.

The announcement of the dropping of the case against Armstrong came from the United States attorney’s office in Los Angeles and reminded us that its primary purpose was not to prove that the rider had doped. In the US, sports-related doping is not a federal crime. The effect of doping is the issue and in Armstrong’s case an attempt was being made to discover whether sponsorship money provided by a US government body had been used to subsidise a doping programme by his US postal team. Fraudulent misuse of federal funds would have been the crime, rather than cheating.

The appointment as lead investigator of Jeff Novitsky, who cracked the Balco case involving Marion Jones, suggested that the truth, whatever it was, would finally be established. No one expected 20 months of intense work to be abandoned so suddenly and — to many eyes — inconclusively: Novitsky’s office was apparently still in the process of setting up appointments for further interviews.

The decision seems to have been made on a cost-benefit basis. Even with testimony from such former teammates as Floyd Landis, himself stripped of a title for drug use, and Tyler Hamilton, both of whom told Novitsky they had seen Armstrong doping, a court hearing would have been lengthy and expensive for the government and its outcome uncertain. Why spend all that money on an effort to bring down a national hero, particularly one whose own legal armoury is equally well stocked?

It would have been nice to have established the truth, either way, and put it beyond further dispute. Novitsky had the resources but could not find the incontrovertible evidence that went beyond a matter of one man’s word against another’s (or, in the case of Emma O’Reilly, the former US postal masseuse who told her story to David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, the authors of LA Confidentiel, One Woman’s Word).

Case closed, then. There will never be a smoking gun, or a dripping syringe. We are left to examine our own conclusions, and to wonder how it really feels to be Lance Armstrong. —

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