Photo: AFP

Ok, this is my first post in a while but this seemed like a good opportunity to jump back into the blog!

As you may have heard, late last night (August 23, 2012), Lance Armstrong decided not to dispute the charges levelled against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). In accordance with the World Anti-Doping Code, Armstrong will therefore be stripped of seven Tour de France titles, his bronze from the 2000 Olympics, and all other titles, awards and cash prizes won from August 1998 to the present. He is also barred for life from competing, coaching or having an official role in any sport adhering to WADA’s code of conduct, including the Olympics.

Before the question of whether Armstrong doped becomes front and centre, I think it is important to recognize the scope of the charges put forth by the USADA:

1. Doping (!). The USADA alleges that 38 of Armstrong’s blood samples from 2009 and 2010 (his “comeback period”) were “fully consistent with blood manipulation”–signs of the illegal use of EPO or blood transfusions. They also claim that data obtained from the 2001 Tour de Suisse evidence the use of EPO. In addition, the USADA alleges that Armstrong used corticosteroids, testosterone, human growth hormone and agents that mask their use.

2. Conspiracy. This accusation is key to what has unfolded. Armstrong’s case is part of a larger case involving amongst others, his trainer, Michele Ferrari, his doctor, Luis del Moral and the Director Sportif of the US Postal Service and Discovery Teams, Johan Bruyneel. Ferrari and del Moral have already accepted lifetime bans for their role in organized doping in sport. Bruyneel’s case is pending. The key point is that the  USADA accuses Armstrong of being part of a larger project: of being instrumental in organizing, encouraging and instructing teammates on both the US Postal Service and Discovery Teams to dope. Their evidence is based on who organized and monitored his training and the testimony of numerous teammates, a trainer and a team soigneur.

Armstrong’s defense is that 1. the USADA lacks scientific evidence of doping, and that he passed every doping control test he was given. 2. Because he passed all his doping controls, the USADA has no basis for launching the case–even according to their own rules. No other cyclist who has passed all tests implemented by the sport’s governing bodies has then been charged through the mere testimony of others. This is therefore a “witch hunt” and something personal. That is why Armstrong rhetorically named Travis Tygart of the USADA personally when explaining that he would not be tried by them because he would not be treated fairly. 3. A professional cyclist takes out their license with the UCI and it is the UCI, not the USADA, that should launch the charges. The UCI agrees. WADA disagrees and supports the USADA. A Texas district court judge, Sam Sparks, decided that the sport’s governing bodies should sort this out amongst themselves, and that it wasn’t up to him so Armstrong’s legal team claim that the USADA should present their evidence to both the UCI and to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The USADA does not want to do this because it probably has complicated arrangements with those testifying against Armstrong related to their identity and/or their own admissions to doping. Also, the USDA believes it is mandated to carry out the charges. 4. Exhaustion: Armstrong claims the personel attacks have worn him and his family down, and are disrupting his work for the Livestrong foundation. He maintains his innocence, but has other priorities. No matter what the USADA does, claims Armstrong, everyone knows who won the races.

Here’s my opinion: The key accusation is whether Armstrong was part of a conspiracy, or in the terms of public opinion, whether he was a fraud. He couldn’t go in front of the USADA because he would lose the public whether found innocent or guilty of doping. The hammer held over Armstrong’s head by the USADA was the long list of those who would testify against him. The USADA was going after Armstrong not just for personally doping, but for conspiring to betray the sport in a broad and organized manner. The USADA would construct Armstrong not simply as a doper, but someone who would manipulate the sport of cycling and betray the public.

The USADA’s accusations impact not only on Armstrong the cyclist, but “Armstrong” the brand associated with the Livestrong Foundation, Nike, fitness equipment, Chris Carmichael’s training regimes… So no one should be surprised if the first response to all this is “I don’t care about whether he doped; he’s done so much for cancer!” Or, “I’ll never do a charity ride with him again and he should return the millions he took in appearance fees!”

So how will the public line-up? Ex-teammates–Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, and Floyd Landis–have admitted to doping and/or accused Armstrong of doping, and even of helping them learn how to dope (Hamilton). Other cyclists close to Armstrong were caught doping, or implicated in doping rings associated with Michele Ferrari shortly after leaving teams that Armstrong was on: Steven Swart, Roberto Heras, Ivan Basso… to name just a few. The press has speculated that ex-teammates Jonathan Vaughters and George Hincapie are two of the witnesses for the USADA. Do you think it was a coincidence that Jonathan Vaughters admitted to doping on August 11?

Hincapie is about to retire. Long known as Armstrong’s closest friend, his testimony would be devastating. In the case of Hincapie, the construction of Armstrong as a win-at-all-costs, team general and control freak would be crucial. Hincapie’s public image is now one of a loyal teammate and elder statesmen but he was devastated when actions taken by, amongst others, Armstrong’s team prevented him from getting the yellow jersey for a few days during the 2009 Tour. Apparently the two did not talk for over a year.

Michael Paulsen/AP

Aside from the testimonies of cyclists and team members, the USADA has repeatedly alluded to Armstrong’s alleged meeting with Dr Martial Saugy, a doctor who tested Armstrong’s samples during the 2001 Tour de Suisse. Saugy has admitted to the meeting. The UCI, it seems, did nothing about it and that’s why the USADA claims the UCI has no authority in the case: they are being investigated and should therefore cooperate. Do you think it was a coincidence that Dr Michael Ashendon of the USADA released a statement on Wednesday, the day before Armstrong had to make his decision, that further implicated the UCI in the USADA’s investigation? These are strong-arm tactics conducted in the media to isolate the accused from his supporters. Why? The fight isn’t just about Armstrong doping; it is broadly about cycling itself being duped and it is the USADA’s mandate to protect the integrity of the sport.

You don’t like the use of the media? “Armstrong” has a huge social media presence and has used it arguably better than any other athlete to maintain his image and establish “Armstrong” as a brand. Today I googled “Lance Armstrong news” and one of the top hits was his own site, appearing before global media networks in the results…and on a day when he’s front page on many newspapers!! I wonder whether this is sustainable. I remember watching the Tour de France on OLN and everyone joking they should call it the “Tour de Lance” because Phil Leggett would mention his name every minute during his coverage. This year they discussed the best tour riders ever and bizarrely (hmmm) left Armstrong’s name out, in fact he was rarely mentioned even at times when considering where they were racing his name should have come up. Then again, Armstrong not only changed the way people approached racing, he also raised the profile of the sport so that it has become “the new golf.” His use of charity rides has transformed the culture of cycling, and he has helped raise millions of dollars for all sorts of cancer-related programs. His use of twitter has helped him touch many many people who were fighting the disease on a daily basis.

Social media: that’s where Armstrong will continue to fight his case. The rhetoric of his statement refusing to appear in front of the USADA ironically dismisses the case against him. He has, he suggests, bigger battles to fight. Again, this is not simply a personal decision. It is also a business decision involving different kinds of teams of people around him who have huge stakes (personal and financial) in the matter. For “Armstrong”, what matters now is whether he tests positive in terms of public opinion.

That is why Armstrong, the social media general, rhetorically smirks at the USADA’s ability to re-write the record books in his forceful claim that we all know who won those races. The USADA would probably retort that the public will also remember the clandestine murkiness surrounding how those races were won OFF the bike. When cyclists talk about Lance Armstrong it is almost inevitable that it turns to discussions of doping. He’s exhausted by it. Personally, so am I. But unfortunately in the case of Armstrong/”Armstrong”, it’s not about the bike.

About Scott Toguri McFarlane

Scott Toguri McFarlane is a former Elite racer, and the founder of Toguri Training Services. For more than a decade, his approach to training has helped aspiring professional racers, provincial team members, and recreational cyclists of all ages and ability achieve their goals, including gold medals at National and Provincial Championships.

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