Uncomfortable Satisfaction

Lance Armstrong is guilty of doping under common-sense standard

September 17, 2004

The recent decision by the US Anti-Doping Agency to adopt a lower standard of proof for doping cases is a welcomed addition to the scant arsenal of weapons available against the ever more sophisticated users of performance-enhancing drugs in the world of sports. Athletes need no longer be proven guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" in doping cases-a near impossibility in many instances-but rather they must be proven guilty "to the comfortable satisfaction" of the panels hearing their cases.

The new standard brings common sense into the pursuit of a level playing field. Obvious cheaters, such as Greek sprinters Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, can no longer hide beyond a "we have never tested positive" gimmick that is built upon clever drugs and astute event and training schedules. Instead, evidence of associations with persons known to facilitate the distribution of drugs, abnormal improvements in performance, and even hearsay, will all be admissible when judging athletes. The standard recognizes in practice what we all know or suspect: that the technology behind the production and administration of performance-enhancing drugs is nearly always ahead of that of drug testing. As a result, athletes universally suspected of wrongdoing spend entire careers achieving records and staying one step ahead of the law.

Comfortable satisfaction brings into the forefront an event that purposely avoids using it, and an athlete who could be the poster child for it: The Tour de France and Lance Armstrong, respectively. Armstrong has been dodged for years by doping accusations and has remained free of final judgment thanks to a lack, but not an absence, of positive tests, and a convenient racing schedule that minimizes testing opportunities.

However, if we eliminate the "beyond a reasonable doubt" requirement, the case for Armstrong being a cheater is very strong, if not completely conclusive. Let us examine the evidence at hand:

  • Armstrong was a medium-notable young rider, among many such others, when in 1996 he was struck with testicular cancer. He became at that time at least the third member of the US Cycling team to be afflicted by severe, life-threatening illnesses. The two other riders in this group, Greg Strock and Erich Keiter, ended up suing USA Cycling claiming that US coaches systematically injected them with performance-enhancing drugs that ultimately ruined their health. Among the coaches alleged to have injected the drugs was Chris Carmichael who is Lance Armstrong's long-time training coach.

  • After Armstrong survived cancer and raced again in 1998, he found himself unable to compete at a high level, and ultimately stopped racing altogether after abandoning a Paris-Nice race exhausted and looking very much as one would expect a man who has undergone cancer treatment to look. At that point, Armstrong went into seclusion with coach Chris Carmichael and emerged the next year to win the Tour de France. In the space of a few months, he had gone from collapsing by the side of the road to handily winning one of the top three cycling races in the world. The label that the press, fellow riders, and amazed fans put on this feat was unanimous: "It's a Miracle".

  • During the 1999 Tour de France, Armstrong tested positive for cortisone, a banned performance-enhancing drug. The test result, which carried with it an immediate disqualification from the race, was explained away by claiming that it was due to a topical cream legally prescribed to Armstrong. However, Emma O'Reilly, a key staff member of the US Postal team at the time and who was present when the team discussed what to do about the positive tests, has declared to various media outlets that the saving prescription was actually a doctored one fabricated with the express purpose of deceiving Tour officials. O'Reilly, who is a respected member of the cycling community, has nothing to gain with her allegations and has no ax to grind with Armstrong.

  • For many years, even as early as 1996, Armstrong's favorite doctor has been Michele Ferrari whom Bicycling magazine calls without hesitation "cycling's doctor most suspected of doping athletes". Dr. Ferrari is currently on trial in Europe for allegedly supplying riders with performance-enhancing drugs. Far from distancing himself from Dr. Ferrari, Armstrong has defended his association with him and gone as far as physically threatening riders who have decided to testify against Dr. Ferrari.

  • Starting in 2000, French police investigated Armstrong and the US Postal team for the illegal procurement and distribution of performance-enhancing drugs. The allegations were based on anonymous tips to police that even included syringes supposedly being used in the schema. The charges, of a criminal nature and carrying hefty prison sentences, were dropped for reasons of lack of evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • Three-time winner of the Tour de France, American Greg Lemond, has labeled Armstrong's comeback from cancer as possibly "the greatest fraud" in the history of the race. To the idea that we have simple witnessed a miracle Lemond is even more blunt: "There are no miracles in cycling". Lemond suffered a shotgun accident in 1987 and had to make a difficult recovery of his own with a long path back to top competition. He clearly knows the limits of the human body at those performing heights and recognizes without reservations that his own return took a full two years and that he was "never the same".

  • In 2004, reporters David Walsh and Pierre Ballester published LA Confidential, a well-documented retrospective book on how Armstrong has allegedly used illegal drugs to further his career. The book includes extensive interviews with former US Postal team staff members and is but one piece away to be a final indictment on Armstrong: a positive test. Lance Armstrong sued the authors for libel in French courts, but his lawsuit was quickly dismissed.

One would think that with the ever-higher mountains of allegations and accusations against Lance Armstrong, the Tour would have by now implemented very strict controls designed to catch Armstrong cheating. But therein lies the problem. The Tour de France is the least interested party on Earth in wanting to uncover doping. By 1999, the Tour had just come out of a major doping scandal in the previous years' edition of the race. Attendance was down, the credibility of the Tour was at an all-time low, and French police were hounding riders and doctors. The Lance Armstrong "miracle" comeback was a Godsend story for the Tour that year. It took the focus off their lax testing procedures and brought back cycling to the front pages. The Tour was eager to accept any plausible explanation that US Postal could provide for Armstrong's positive test result. Tour officials knew well that another doping revelation, involving the Tour's leader nonetheless, could inflict lasting if not permanent damage on the Tour as a race. Ever since, Armstrong and the Tour have been basically married to each other, the fate of one clinging to the fate of the other one.

By a standard of comfortable satisfaction, Lance Armstrong is guilty of doping by a clear margin. He has disgraced the sport, made a mockery of the race, insulted fellow riders and fans alike, and trivialized the record wins of past great cyclists. With the failure of the establishment to unmask his deception, we are left with only the hope that history will bring him down to his right place. Fortunately, as Armstrong was winning a record sixth Tour in 2004, we witnessed a silent protest of sorts from the people who know and love cycling: not a single publication in Europe bothered comparing him to Indurain, Merck, or Hinault, the true standard bearers of what cycling and class are all about.



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