The greatest fraud in the history of sport has been unmasked today with the news that Lance Armstrong has decided not to contest doping charges laid against him by the USADA.
The seven times Tour de France winner will likely be stripped of his titles in due course. But for now the empire created by Armstrong has come crashing down by virtue of arguably the single most important doping case in the history of sports.
This empire was created on a lie.
Armstrong’s recovery from cancer to dominate the sport of cycling was a story that captured the imagination of the planet and armed with the support from the like of Nike, Trek and US Postal Armstrong became more than a cyclist. He became a superstar that transcended his sport in a way that only the likes of Muhammad Ali and Pele have been able to achieve.
His books sold millions of copies as he wrote about his struggles to overcome the odds and return to the sport and win its greatest prizes. The Livestrong foundation was formed in a bid to raise awareness for cancer and support services for patients. The foundation has raised over €500 million to date but the basis of this money has come from a foundation of cheating and lying.
Armstrong’s book was famously called “it’s not about the bike,” but the recent USADA case and the catalogue of evidence that will eventually come out will be damming for Armstrong and his supporters as we find out that the man that famously was “out on my bike for six hours a day, busting my ass” was fuelled not only by a tremendous determination to succeed but also by a cocktail of performance enhancing drugs.
Armstrong’s decision not to enter arbitration with the USADA paints the picture of a guilty man that saw a tremendous body of evidence against himself set to come to light. By making this decision Armstrong has done his best to control the flow of information that follows in the immediate aftermath.
Controlling has always been a crucial element of Armstrong’s psyche and even now in his darkest hour he is looking for some element of the case to control. His statement released this afternoon saw Armstrong say that “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, `Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now,” Armstrong said. He called the USADA investigation an “unconstitutional witch hunt.”
“I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999,” he said. “The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense.”
Ever since his first Tour success Armstrong has been dogged by these allegations. Most of these were fuelled by a failed test during that Tour for corticoid. When news of his positive test spread his US Postal produced a back dated prescription for saddle sore medication containing the banned substance and Armstrong was allowed to race.
When he has needed to take legal action Armstrong has never been slow in starting proceedings. Whether it was bringing an injunction against journalists or newspapers his legal team was always ready for a fight. That a man as competitive as Armstrong has decided not to contest these charges because he has “had enough” is almost laughable.
The same fight and fire that epitomised his career has been seen time and time again in the courtroom and in the media as he fought to ensure that his name was clean in the eyes of the majority of the public.
That he is willing to forgo legal action, and effectively admitting his guilt, Armstrong is betting his reputation, and that of Livestrong, that the majority of the public do not care that he doped.
There will be a common thread of argument for Armstrong that the majority of the peleton was also doping and that Armstrong’s success should therefore not be tainted.
Paul Kimmage, the Irish journalist who has had a fiery relationship with Armstrong, was keen to discuss this matter earlier today:
“Lets look at his first Tour victory,” said Kimmage on Irish radio. “In October of 1998, after the Festina scandal, cycling was supposed to be at rock bottom. The sport was ready to move on and the sport was to get into a much better state. For the first time the public all knew the true depth of doping in the sport. Pat McQuaid [current president of the UCI] spoke of how things were going to be different.”
Kimmage went on to talk about hopes amongst the teams and riders that a new era free from doping was set to begin but when Armstrong won his title any such aspirations were dashed because of the acceptance of Armstong’s backdated prescription for saddle sore cream. This acceptance by the organisers however also gave the peleton a free reign to resume doping.
Kimmage went on to comment about the reasons why Armstrong’s prescription was accepted:
“Armstrong isn’t just a cyclist. He has this fabulous story and he had a huge audience who wanted to believe in him. Suddenly within a week of the race he tests positive. This is the worst case scenario for everyone in cycling. This great story is positive so they let him off.”
While many will look to Armstrong’s story and wish for him to have been riding clear a look through his Tour victories leaves little doubt that he was doping.
During his seven successful Tour de France races Armstrong competed against a peleton where, on average, seven finishers in each top ten have failed doping controls and been banned from the sport.
In an era of such rampant drug use it is laughable to think that one man, riding clean, was head and shoulders above the dopers. The fact that Armstrong is not fighting the case against the USADA means that a lot of questions relating to his doping cannot be answered. However the USADA has confirmed that in due course the full body of evidence will be released.
A look at the list of Armstrong’s teammate’s who doped, many of whom came forward to the USADA, also makes for damming reading.
From his first Tour title in 99 Armstrong was assisted by domestiques such as Frankie Andreu who has since admitting to using EPO to help Armstrong succeed on the higher climbs. In the subsequent years the likes of Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Roberto Heras and George Hincape have all admitted to using performance enhancing methods while supporting Armstrong.
The quartet of riders were all Grand Tour or Olympic champions who were exceptionally talented riders but needed to dope to offer Armstrong the kind of support required to win a Tour title.
The most damming factor in the accusations that had been leveled against Armstrong from the USADA related to the testimonies of Landis, Hamilton and Hincape. All three admitted that they had used performance enhancing drugs and that they used them extensively while racing alongside Armstrong.
Both Landis and Hincape have admitted to using the drugs together while Hamilton, in interviews with David Walsh, commented that the drug culture at US Postal was so accepted that all of the riders were openly using the products together.
The USADA also has testimony from numerous other sources. Armstrong has consistently tried to discredit anyone who has made allegations against him but the most important allegations came from Hincape, Armstrong’s long time teammate and closest ally within the peleton.
Once Hincape was willing to testify against Armstrong, after retiring from the sport, the extent to which the walls were closing in on Armstrong were perfectly crystallised. While the rest of his former teammates could be painted with the brush of disgruntled former teammates, a common ploy by Armstrong, Hincape’s reputation and friendship made this impossible.
The only tactic left for Lance was to admit defeat and try to bring the focus, as ever, back to his recovery from cancer.
The story that made him a star was central to his statement today with the Texan signing off by stating his goals forward:
“I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities. This October, my Foundation will celebrate 15 years of service to cancer survivors and the milestone of raising nearly $500 million. We have a lot of work to do and I’m looking forward to an end to this pointless distraction. I have a responsibility to all those who have stepped forward to devote their time and energy to the cancer cause.”
Throughout his career Armstrong has consistently used cancer as a shield with which to protect himself from any allegations. Now he is using it once again to ensure that while the USADA will have their day in the sun the focus for Armstrong will return to Livestrong.
His ego still refuses to admit defeat. He has simply looked to change his goals. While many will say that today’s announcement will hurt cycling badly one simple fact should be made.
Armstrong never tried to bring fans to cycling, he looked to bring fans to Lance Armstrong. He was always prickly with the media and as a result never endeared himself to the majority of the true fanbase of cycling fanbase.
There was always suspicion hanging in the air when discussion turned to Armstrong. For most of the last 13 years you have had to use hushed tones to discuss doping and Armstrong for fear of being rebuked by, “but he had cancer!”
Armstrong has done a lot to raise the profile for cancer research and spent a lot of money through Livestrong to provide support services to cancer patients but it should be remembered that the €500 million raised by the foundation was done on the pretense of a lie.
They say that two wrongs make right. So can the wrongs of doping and lying be overturned by the good done by the Livestrong Foundation. For much of the public, as we have seen today, the answer will be yes but for the majority of true cycling fans this will not be the case. The Texan will forever be remembered for an era of unprecedented success based on doping.
The mask has fallen and the man that thought of himself as bigger than his sport will finally be stricken from the record books of cycling.