Friday, August 24, 2012
The Lance Decision
Lance Armstrong has announced he will not fight the latest charges being brought against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). USADA is accusing Armstrong of using performance enhancing drugs during his Tour de France winning streak from 1999-2005. Is this an indication that Lance is guilty of these charges, since he's decided not to contest them? Is Lance really tired of the fight? Or, was this the smartest play that Lance could make? It's a very, very convoluted topic, and what follows is the official take of The Junes.
First, I don't believe for a second that Lance is tired of the fight--he never tires of any fight. He's just very smart about which battles he takes on, and which he walks away from. His decision to not contest the charges has more to do with the end result. Lance had two options: he could go to arbitration, which could last for weeks, which would mean that every day in the news there would be a report about another former teammate testifying that Lance used PED's, or another report about a possible failed drug test--it would be a daily badgering of his reputation. Or, he could choose to not fight, claim that USADA is on a witch hunt and that the charges are baseless, and not have to go through a nasty process. Either way, Lance knew that the end result would be the same: USADA was going to find him guilty. In a criminal case or Federal case, they need to prove that the accused cheated beyond a (reasonable) shadow of a doubt, but USADA only needs a semi-high level of suspicion to find someone guilty. Armstrong was willing to fight the Feds because he had a much better chance of winning, since there is no hard evidence that would help lead to a guilty ruling. But USADA doesn't need a smoking gun.
The USADA process is not a trial, so Lance can now claim that he never had his day in court. He can claim that they've unfairly targeted him since he's never officially failed a drug test. He knows he's got millions of supporters who will back him. He also knows that USADA doesn't have the power to strip him of his seven Tour de France victories. That decision would have to be made by either the UCI (the governing body of world cycling) or by the Tour de France itself. The UCI has always been in Lance's corner, so they won't push to strip him. The Tour has a tough call to make--if they decide to strip Lance of his wins, do they promote the second place finishers in each of those seven races? If so, they would would have to promote Alex Zulle, Jan Ullrich, Joseba Beloki, Andreas Kloden and Ivan Basso--all of whom have tested positive for doping or admitted to using PED's. What about elevating the third place finishers in those years? The problem is the same, as you have guys like Vinokourov and Rumsas who also have tested positive for PED's who were on the podium for those races. Or, the Tour could just leave those seven years empty. But for a race which has such a rich history and markets that rich history to its full advantage, that would leave an ugly, gaping hole to have to stare at each time you looked at the list of winners. Plus, the Tour still lists the likes of Ullrich, Bjarne Riis, Marco Pantani and Alberto Contador as past winners--all of whom have tested positive or admitted to doping. So if they wipe Lance off the books, don't they have to wipe almost 20 years of their race history off the books as well? I can't see the Tour ever deciding to do that. I think they just want to move forward and hope it all goes away. Yes, the Tour has always had a strained relationship with Lance, and they could decide to strip him, but I think that decision would open a can of worms that the Tour would rather not deal with.
USADA is now preventing Lance from competing, even though he's retired. They can prevent him from racing in the Ironman triathlon series, which he had been doing this year as a professional, but I think Lance can live without that. I hate it, because I couldn't wait to see how he would have fared against the best in the Ironman--he had already won two Half-Ironman races this spring. Lance can, however, continue to compete in other events such as the Xterra off-road triathlon series, other world-wide triathlon events, or races like the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, or marathons, etc.
In the end, Lance had two roads to take, and both ended with USADA finding him guilty of doping. He knew that USADA was 58-2 in arbitration cases. He knew his best course of action was to basically ignore USADA. Instead of going to arbitration and losing, he knew that he would be better off by ignoring USADA and maintaining his innocence. It would have been very damaging for Lance to fight, and then to have USADA trot out former teammates who are creditable (not Floyd Landis or Tyler Hamilton, but guys like George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer, who have never failed drug tests and who were set to testify) who would have testified that they saw Lance doping, or knew of him doping. The Lance camp would argue that these witnesses either have no credibility or were blackmailed. Either way, it's to Lance's benefit that whatever evidence or testimony USADA had on their side never come out. This way, it never will.
Do I think Lance doped? I think he's a true freak of nature, and stronger in the mind than most athletes I've ever covered--yet, it's hard to believe that he won cleanly when everyone else was doping. I believe he was better than everyone, but not that much better. However, the playing field was level--practically everyone in the 90's and 00's in the pro peloton was doping, therefore, Lance was the strongest. If the entire peloton, including Lance, had been clean, I believe Lance still wins. So, while I think it was highly probably that Lance doped, I don't think it gave him an unfair advantage since everyone else was doping, too. It doesn't make what any of them did right, it's just (as Dan McDowell might say) the way it was.
I feel bad for Lance in that this is clearly a witch hunt. He is correct in that he's never failed a drug test (it should be noted that in 1999 at the Tour de France he did test positive for cortisone use, but it was dismissed after his doctors presented the Tour with a note of explanation, and that there is heavy speculation that in 2001 at the Tour of Switzerland he tested positive for EPO and that the result of that test was covered up by the UCI). So why, then, would USADA go after Lance? And why would they go after him seven years after his last Tour win? It's pretty obvious that USADA has it out for Lance, and I believe that his recent dalliance with the Ironman was too much for them to take--that they couldn't stand to see him compete again. And, when the Feds dropped their case against Lance, USADA saw this as a chance to make a big name for their organization by going after the biggest fish in the pond.
I also feel bad for the sport of cycling. There is no doubt that the sport was filthy from about 1991 (when EPO hit the scene full-force) until about 2008, and of course there are still cheaters out there. But, it's getting better. The sport has always been way ahead of the curve in terms of how it deals with cheats, but that's also meant a lot of negative publicity. The sport should be lauded for it's crusade against doping, not chided for what it's uncovered. It's a beautiful sport, and always will be. And today, it's a cleaner sport that it's been in a long, long time. But there will always be cheaters, and in every sport.
Lance will survive. He has an army of supporters, and they will continue to support him. I don't believe that his decision to not fight the USADA charges will have any long-term impact on his legacy. Those millions who love Lance will still love him, and they'll agree with his reasons not to fight. Those millions that hate Lance will, of course, still hate him. I would be shocked if the Livestrong Foundation suffers at all--I'll predict that their donations may in fact increase now, much as Penn State saw donations increase following the Sandusky scandal.
Lance made the best call. It will be difficult for him, short term, to read the headlines that he's "guilty" or that he's "been stripped of his Tour wins." Ultimately, though, his life will go on. He'll keep his Tour wins (I think), and he won't go to jail. He's basically survived every accusation levelled against him over the last 15 years. His foundation will survive, as will his legacy, for the most part. It's the best possible outcome for Lance, considering he had to choose between two negative outcomes. He chose the lesser of two evils. Whether or not Lance Armstrong contested those races by virtue of evil means is up for everyone else to now decide on their own.