/ 31 August 2012

Lance Armstrong’s loss is win for clean cycling

A fan cheers Lance Armstrong on in the US Pro Challenge in Colorado this month.
A fan cheers Lance Armstrong on in the US Pro Challenge in Colorado this month.

In 2004, Lance Armstrong sat in a press conference at the start of the Tour de France in the Belgian city of Liège, a week or so after the first serious allegations that he had used performance-enhancing drugs had appeared in the book LA Confidentiel, written by David Walsh and Pierre Ballester. Armstrong looked straight at Walsh, who was sitting in the front row, and said: "Extraordinary allegations require extraordinary evidence." That settled the argument. For a while.

Some credit should go to Walsh and Ballester: they initiated the long, contorted process of revelation that has led the United States Anti-Doping Agency to handing Armstrong a lifetime ban and strip him of his seven Tour titles.

The process reached a watershed last Friday morning when Armstrong conceded that he did not wish to confront evidence that had been put together by the agency from accounts provided by 10 former teammates, which had led it to charge Armstrong with blood doping, the use of erythropoietin, testosterone and other substances.

Had he conceded that the case should go to arbitration, he would have had to face those charges in a public forum. The evidence could have been "extraordinary", but Armstrong chose not to find out what it was. It is rare, possibly unprecedented, for Armstrong to withdraw from any combat. Fighting is his way and always has been. But steering away from exposure of that evidence is the only outcome that permits him to maintain any semblance of control over proceedings and cling on to any scraps of the myth he has built around himself.

But he does so with all the credibility of one of those fabled Japanese soldiers who hid on the Pacific islands convinced that World War  II was still being fought. By avoiding having to give formal answers to the detailed allegations of his teammates, he can continue to contend that the process was flawed and that the agency had indulged in a witch-hunt. And he can state until he is blue in the face that he has never tested positive.

In 2000, at the start of a Tour de France stage, a close associate of the Texan told me emphatically that he would never, ever test positive. How right he was. But how pointless the notion. Those arguments are now simply countered: If he has never used drugs, why did he not argue against the point in a formal setting? He has done that before, notably in the case against his insurers, SCA.

The Armstrong journey
It is strange now to contemplate the Armstrong journey. It is just less than 20 years since I was introduced to a brash, extremely quick-witted Texan youth who had recently turned professional with the Motorola team. I liked him. And I was not alone. His great critic and eventual sworn enemy, the "troll in chief" Walsh, felt the same way when they first met in 1993. In 1997 and 1998 Armstrong could only be respected for the scale of the challenge he had taken on: returning from cancer to attempt to race again.

It is important to recall these things now, because we should remember that Armstrong has not always been what he has been since the early 2000s. He has not always been lawsuit-happy, was not always ready to browbeat those who raised their voices against him. If he goes down in cycling history as the biggest name to fall from grace among an entire generation that was tainted by drug-taking, that is partly because of the scale of what he achieved and partly because of the length of time during which he persisted in flying in the face of the evidence.

The sport should not be wringing its hands over this. The concession is sudden; the revelations anything but. It is not a case of "say it ain't so", but "say it and let us move on". For the past eight years, the weight of evidence against Armstrong has built inexorably: the two-year investigation by Walsh and Ballester that produced a book full of circumstantial evidence but no smoking gun, the positive tests for erythropoietin uncovered in 2005 during research on samples from the 1999 Tour and, most recently, the detailed account from his former teammates, Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, about doping practices in the Texan's US Postal Service team. The doping agency released a statement outlining the anti-doping rules Armstrong had violated since 1998 as it justified the ban and removal of his titles. More details will emerge, and soon: to start with, Hamilton's account of his career and his doping will appear within a few weeks.

The discussion about the status of Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories is irrelevant. Other than their place in the records, those results ceased to have a great deal of meaning as long ago as 2006-2007, once it became clear from the Operación Puerto inquiry that an entire generation of cyclists – Armstrong's generation of Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Alexander Vinokourov and company – were tainted with blood doping. The Tour wins remained Armstrong's, but the standings beneath them became devoid of all sense. Now, the question of who the Tour wins should be awarded to would be an amusing party game were it not a grotesque illustration of a sport that completely lost its way in the early years of this century.

Armstrong's concession that he cannot win the case against the agency matters, because cycling can look, learn and move on. It has already moved on in terms of how doping is discussed and the weight of opinion against it. Indeed, for several years now, Armstrong has seemed like a man out of his time.

By pushing Armstrong to the point where he felt he would rather not contest the evidence, the agency has shown that no athlete can consider themselves immune from being pursued over doping allegations. – ©Guardian News & Media 2012