Monday, January 24, 2011
Is Lance In Trouble?
It's over. The remarkable racing career of Lance Armstrong officially came to end on Sunday, January 23rd. He competed in his final international event, The Tour Down Under. No rider in the history of the sport won the Tour de France as many times. No rider in the the history of the sport made more money. And no rider in the history of the sport was more of a lightning rod.
Now what for Lance? He has talked about entering the Ironman in Hawaii this fall. He'll continue to head his Livestrong Foundation. He may even go into politics. But there is something else that will have to be dealt with in the immediate future.
The Feds are after Lance Armstrong. Bulldog investigator Jeff Novitzky is out to prove that Armstrong doped his way to his seven Tour titles.
The case the government is building is said to dwarf the BALCO investigation in terms of size and amount of work. Sports Illustrated, long a champion of Armstrong's, ran a feature story this week called "The Case Against Lance Armstrong." The French have been after him for years, and are assisting in the investigation.
But what do the Feds really have, and is Lance really guilty?
As of right now, it looks like there is no smoking gun. No positive tests that can be proven to be Armstrong's, no DNA on a needle, no video of him doping, no confession from the man himself. The case Novitzky is building is centered around testimony--multiple sources saying they saw Lance dope, they heard him talking about doping, or they doped with him. But the Armstrong camp dismisses most of these accounts as being from people who are jealous (Greg LeMond), who have no credibility (Floyd Landis), or who are obsessed with bringing him down (Betsy Andreu--and LeMond again).
There is no doubt that Lance has pissed off and pissed on a lot of people over the course of his 20 year career. He was known as a mafia-type boss of his teams. If you crossed Lance, you paid for it. He knows how to hold a grudge.
You can explain away the individual accusations: LeMond never had time to bask in the afterglow of his wonderful career--the year he retired, Armstrong rode as the World Champion and already America had it's next LeMond. There were also the stories of LeMond feeling as though Lance never paid him enough respect--and of course the fact that Lance went on to break most of Greg's records. Landis has no credibility--he lied about doping, swindled half a million dollars out of innocent people for his defense, then, when he had nowhere else to go and was broke, admitted he took drugs and tried to take Lance down with him. Betsy Andreu says she heard Lance in the cancer ward admit to doctors that he had taken every performance enhancing drug imaginable. The doctors present deny that, and Lance claims Andreu is obsessed with him (she apparently blogs about Lance non-stop).
But what about the argument that where there is so much smoke, there must be fire? Everyone who finished on the podium with Lance during his 7 year Tour-winning run has tested positive for doping. How could Lance beat all of those doped-up guys if he was clean? And what about the suspicious lab tests from the '99 Tour, or the early 90's USA cycling teams? (For the record, Lance's camp claims the samples are too old, or not his, or call into question the chain of custody--all valid) And it's more than just LeMond, Landis and Andreu who have stories about Lance. Could so many people be lying?
Lance, of course, has his backers. For every one person who says Lance doped, there are ten former teammates or coaches or friends who say they never saw any sign of it. That's where the Feds need a smoking gun to get a conviction. As a friend of mine who is closer to the situation than I am pointed out, the Feds will not go after Lance for doping--they'll go after him for perjury. They will hope to get Lance to testify under oath that either A) he doped, or B) he didn't--but then hope to have enough testimony from others that he did. Or hope to have a smoking gun that catches him in a lie. Or, at the very least, hope Lance takes the fifth, thus creating Mark McGuire-like speculation that he's hiding something.
Do I think Lance doped? I think there is a very good chance that he doped before his cancer diagnosis. The 90's were a filthy time for the sport. Everyone did it. Unnatural performances occurred. There was no test for EPO. The sport changed. After cancer? I would like to think he didn't--could someone who cheated death really pump themselves full of dangerous chemicals? Could someone who is an inspiration to millions of cancer survivors really risk his reputation and risk flushing his Foundation's work down the toilet? Could the most tested athlete in the history of the world really be that good at dodging positive results when everyone around him gets busted? It all seems far fetched--but possible.
Then there is the theory that Lance is his era's Babe Ruth. He is Jordan, Gretzky, Bolt, Phelps, or Tiger. That he was simply that talented and more driven than those he raced against. Do we think that every legend dopes, or are there simply athletes that come along who happen to be superior to everyone else?
Lance seems very confident that his name will be cleared. Many of his fans feel the same way. I don't think there is a smoking gun, and I don't think Lance will shock us with a confession, therefore it's my guess that nothing will stick. He'll move on. His reputation will take a temporary hit, but if he's cleared, his image as Tour winner and cancer fighter will remain, and that will be his ultimate legacy.
Having said that, if he enters the Ironman this fall and wins it by an hour, we'll need to revisit the subject.