Having accepted the “reasoned decision” of the US Anti-Doping Agency, the International Cycling Union’s (UCI’s) Pat McQuaid would just like Lance Armstrong to vanish. At a press conference yesterday McQuaid said, ‘Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling … He deserves to be forgotten.’
While McQuaid and the UCI came to the right decision regarding the Armstrong case, he is very much wrong in his desire to airbrush Armstrong out of the annals of cycling history; much like the old Soviet Union removed party members who fell out of favor from photos and books.
The old saying goes that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Now that Armstrong has well and truly become the scapegoat-in-chief for the EPO era of professional cycling, his story is one that should be taught to upcoming cyclists and others. Lance Armstrong wasn’t the first cyclist to use EPO, or testosterone (heck, Bernard Thevenet won at least one of his two Tour victories in the 1970s by using the drug), or human growth hormone, or blood doping, or anything else.
Still, Lance is the one brought low, banned from the sport for life – as he should be, given the magnitude of what he appears to have done.
Armstrong and long-time team manager Johan Bruyneel and the others named in USADA’s case may arguably have been the best at doping, but anyone who thinks that other teams weren’t trying to do the same things is fooling themselves. If you’ve read Tyler Hamilton’s book, that much should be crystal clear.
McQuaid is being a bit more than disingenuous in his desire to make Lance Armstrong vanish like a puff of smoke. With the allegations of corruption in cycling’s governing body, it’s a bit precious for him to be acting as if he’s shocked by the revelations.
Be that as it may, Armstrong deserves a place in cycling history. He is the perfect illustration of just how corrupting a “win at all costs” attitude can be. The characterization of Armstrong that comes through in USADA’s documents is not pretty. Arrogant, abrasive, brash, domineering. Those are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind. Perhaps these are the characteristics of a person driven to be a champion, but they are not very flattering. And they are not the image that Armstrong cultivated.
Armstrong’s case illustrates just how easy it was to beat the testers at their own game. With a bit of help from people such as Dr. Michele Ferrari, he was able to circumvent new tests and find new ways to enhance his performance without coming up positive.
And it illustrates the limits of drug testing as the sole means of discovering cheaters. One of the biggest problems with a testing-based program of detecting those who are using performance-enhancing drugs is that it’s impractical to test each athlete every day. Or even often enough to be certain of catching the cheaters in the act. The element of surprise is good, as it heightens the chances of catching someone who has recently doped. But then, the story is that Johan Bruyneel was able to tip off his riders when testers were going to show up.
During Armstrong’s day beating the drug testers was a kind of IQ test. If you were smart, or you had access to some smart people to help you, or someone could tell you when the testers were on their way, you could consistently come up “clean.” Lance Armstrong was tested several hundred times, and how many positive test results came up? Just a few, each of which he found a way to make go away. The cortisone in 1999, the alleged suspicious result at the 2001 Tour de Suisse, and the retesting of samples that became the heart of the 2005 L’Equipe scandal.
Armstrong and Bruyneel managed to concoct a backdated prescription to cover the first. And Lance is said to have paid for the UCI to look the other way in the 2001 scandal. In both instances, the UCI doesn’t come out looking very good, either. And the L’Equipe scandal didn’t lead to any charges because the tests weren’t officially sanctioned drug tests, they were conducted for “research.” Which leads to another point.
Armstrong’s case also illustrates the inherent conflicts of interest when a sport’s governing body also is responsible for managing the anti-doping efforts. In the wake of the 1998 Festina scandal, the UCI and the promoters of the Tour de France sorely needed the 1999 edition to be a “Tour of Renewal” or “Tour of Redemption” that could herald a new era of clean cycling. But cycling was still rotting from the inside. In a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” the UCI accepted the backdated prescription that he and his team produced when Armstrong came up positive for corticosteroids. In other words, the sport’s governing body helped cover up a positive test, for whatever reason.
Maybe Hein Verbruggen, the UCI’s leader at the time, felt that another doping scandal at the Tour would rock the sport to its core and perhaps destroy professional cycling, and thus decided to give Armstrong a pass. But the better approach would have been to bring an anti-doping case then and there. That would have illustrated a real dedication to clean cycling.
In Armstrong, however, they got the feel-good story to end all feel-good stories. Someone who was wracked with cancer just a few years before, who was able to get back on his bike and race, and even more incredibly, who could actually win the toughest race of all– the Tour de France. Who couldn’t love a story like that? The marketing possibilities and the PR possibilities would be endless. Cycling would grow by leaps and bounds. And it did.
If Pat McQuaid could make Armstrong vanish into the haze, perhaps the UCI’s own partial responsibility for the EPO era – their inability to detect cheats and their apparent willingness to let certain cheaters skate – would disappear, too. Which might be good for the UCI in the short term, but wouldn’t bode well for the sport in the longer term.
Cycling is best served when its history is an open book, when people can see what happened, see who was responsible, and learn from the mistakes of the past. While Lance Armstrong should be branded a doper – and one of the most successful, at that – he should not be erased from cycling’s history. His story is the perfect illustration of the EPO era in all its excess. But it is not the only story, and those stories should be discovered and documented, too. There are many lessons to be learned from rise and fall of Lance Armstrong. So while it may be right to condemn him for how he won, and for how he treated people, and for what he forced them to do, his place in cycling history should be secure – as the best damn doper who ever rode a bike.
Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace seems almost complete. Oakley, the last of his major sponsors, dumped him yesterday after the UCI announced their decision. He may yet face lawsuits from former sponsors and SCA, the insurance company he tussled with over the $5 million bonus for winning the 2004 Tour, and all that may well take a deep financial toll. But with an estimated net worth of $125 million, Armstrong should be able to weather the financial and legal storms to come.
Pat McQuaid is wrong. Forgetting Lance Armstrong is not what we should do. We should remember. We should remember everything. It is the only way to avoid falling prey to such a con-man again.