I became a big fan of Lance Armstrong after reading his first book, It’s Not About the Bike, describing his battle against a horrible case of cancer. It was inconceivable to me that someone who had been that sick could come back and win the Tour de France, let alone stand on the podium in Paris wearing the yellow jersey seven years in a row. I have also been a major fan of the Tour, watching evening replays back in the day when I was gainfully employed, and now watching the live broadcast every morning from France. When allegations of Armstrong’s doping first came to light, my initial reaction was that someone who had gone through what he had would not start taking potentially harmful drugs to win a bike race. I also did not want to believe them, and did not.
Now I have read the report by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. It is a detailed account of close to 200 pages, supported by another 1,000 pages of exhibits. Not only it is a virtual certainty that Armstrong was the leader of a sophisticated and comprehensive doping scheme, but he comes across as a world-class jerk. He continues to deny that he doped, blaming the overwhelming testimony against him as motivated by numerous liars who have some type of impure motivation. The Report, however, convincingly establishes that Armstrong used EPO (an oxygen booster), Testosterone and blood doping – all illegal under international cycling rules – during each of his Tour wins.
A central feature of his denials is his claim that he never tested positive. The Report, however, identifies two instances in which he did test positive, one of which came, ironically, after he put on the yellow jersey for the first time. In that case, he was able to overturn a positive for corticosteroids by getting a doctor to back date a prescription for a steroidal cream that he claimed was needed to treat saddle sores. In the second, a positive test for EPO “went away” after the cyclist allegedly made a six-figure “contribution” to the testing agency, the Union Cycliste Internationale (ICI).
Two positives over a lengthy career may not seem significant, but the Report details the considerable effort expended by Armstrong to avoid detection, including:
- Hiding: He had numerous training sites in both Europe and the United States, and did not provide accurate records of his schedule (as required by USADA rules). In one case, he quit a race after learning that testers were at his hotel.
- Using undetectable substances or methods: When testing was developed to detect EPO – a substance he had used previously – Armstrong started taking it intravenously and in smaller doses. There was no effective test for blood doping
- Understanding testing limits: Chances of detection were reduced if, for example, EPO was administered intravenously in small doses, and at night when testing occurred infrequently.
- Taking saline solutions to reduce blood numbers that would suggest blood doping.
While one’s conception of taking illegal drugs may be the occasional furtive trip to the office of a willing doctor, the Report demonstrates clearly that Armstrong’s cycling teams had a comprehensive program involving, at a minimum, the climbers for whom endurance and strength were absolute necessities for success. Among the witnesses providing incriminating evidence of Armstrong’s involvement were 11 teammates who signed sworn affidavits, many of whom admitted their own illegal drug use. A key figure in the Armstrong operation was Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor who was paid over $1 million by Armstrong from 1996 to 2006, including an astounding $835,000 during Armstrong’s last four Tour wins. The affidavits indicated that while Armstrong and Ferrari did indeed have furtive meetings, Ferrari often attended Armstrong’s training camps and prepared “programs” for members of the team including Armstrong. Armstrong publicly severed any connection with Ferrari after the doctor was convicted of sporting fraud by an Italian court in 2004. Nonetheless, Armstrong still paid him $210,000 for his services after the purported termination.
While the reading of specific witness testimony substantiating the allegations can start to seem monotonous, certain anecdotes (supported by the testimony) stand out. In one such case, the team bus carrying the cyclists back to that night’s hotel was pulled over to the side of the road (under the guise of engine problems) so the entire team could blood dope – having a bag of blood intravenously inserted. In another, Armstrong had a team member “babysit” the team’s blood supply in Armstrong’s apartment in case the power went off, thereby ruining the quality of the blood.
The prolonged and persistent cheating is bad enough. Worse, however, are the efforts of Armstrong to protect his reputation and continue the conspiracy. His constant denials of wrongdoing were usually accompanied by targeting the accuser as a liar or someone motivated by personal animus, even when the object of his derision had been a teammate and friend. The Report also demonstrates that he perjured himself in testimony during the course of a dispute over his drug usage. He tried to intimidate and retaliate against witnesses, including a case where the witness was not testifying against him, but against Dr. Ferrari.
He threatened to fire a teammate if he did not start with the drug program, and coerced others to do so. One of the more disturbing incidents involved a teammate who had taken to cycling to help deal with his anguish over his father’s death from drug addiction. The cyclist was called to a meeting where he was told he would have to get with the “program.” and was then injected with EPO. When he returned to his hotel room that night, he cried.
Let’s put this in context, particularly since there are many who have excused Armstrong’s transgressions because of the work of his Foundation in battling cancer. The Report conclusively demonstrates that Lance Armstrong has been lying and cheating for years. His refusal to contest the allegations before a neutral arbitrator because he was tired of arguing against the charges is as thin an excuse as you will ever see.
Lance Armstrong became an American icon. He achieved one of the most remarkable records of any athlete in any team sport. The key word there is “team.” One does not win the Tour de France on his own. There was no better demonstration of that than this year when Bradley Wiggins won the race. His teammate, Chris Froome, had a chance to win the race on his own but subordinated his chances to that of the team leader. One of many interesting things about the Tour is the word used to describe the other eight riders whose job is to support the leader: “domestique.” Lance Armstrong won seven tours because of his teammates, many of whom are world-class cyclists and potential winners in their own right. (Indeed, Floyd Landis went on to win after Armstrong retired, only to have his win invalidated for doping.) It is one thing if Armstrong decided that he would dope. It’s another to force your team members to dope, ignoring any health risks and the possibility that the teammate could be banned for life from cycling – all so Lance Armstrong could win the race. I only call him a “world class jerk” because the appropriate term would be out-of-place in a family newspaper.