Lance Armstrong: Guilty, even when proven innocent
Quick, name a pro cyclist other than Lance Armstrong.
If you’re a cycling enthusiast who really could rattle off the names of a few other favorite athletes, then bless your heart, but of course you probably still realize that Armstrong is the only name that comes to most people’s minds. He won the Tour de France an amazing seven times, and survived a battle with testicular cancer that made him an inspirational figure to many fans. He remains a dedicated crusader against cancer, having established the highly successful Livestrong foundation.
Bicycle racing at the Tour de France level is a grueling test of endurance. So is beating cancer. The philosophy of Armstrong’s foundation is based on the link between the two – “We believe in energy: channeled and fierce. We believe in focus: getting smart and living strong,” as the Livestrong manifesto puts it.
But the one thing Armstong’s perseverance couldn’t defeat was an out-of-control quasi-governmental agency with government funding and a single-minded vendetta against him.
On Thursday night, Armstrong announced that he would no longer continue his three-year battle against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which was never able to produce a single conclusive test to prove Armstrong guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs… but relentlessly persecuted him anyway.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in L.A. investigated Armstrong for two years, without filing any charges, but that didn’t matter to the USADA. Armstrong noted that some of the charges leveled against him by the anti-doping agency far exceeded their 8-year statute of limitations. He also pointed out in his statement on Thursday that various international cycling organizations declared the USADA’s proceedings improper, questioned their authority to conduct the investigation, called upon them to cease and desist, and advised other athletes to refrain from cooperating in the Armstrong persecution.
The USADA’s case rests entirely on hearsay – witnesses claiming to have seen Armstrong doping before races, even though incredibly extensive medical testing found no conclusive evidence. Armstrong alleges that corrupt testimony from these riders was obtained with special deals from the USADA. It’s a classic example of a witch hunt, in which the target must be guilty, even though science says he is innocent, because several other people insist upon his guilt.
“If I thought for one moment that by participating in USADA’s process, I could confront these allegations in a fair setting and – once and for all – put these charges to rest, I would jump at the chance,” Armstrong said in his statement. “But I refuse to participate in a process that is so one-sided and unfair. Regardless of what [USADA chief] Travis Tygart says, there is zero physical evidence to support his outlandish and heinous claims. The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls I have passed with flying colors. I made myself available around the clock and around the world. In-competition. Out of competition. Blood. Urine. Whatever they asked for I provided. What is the point of all this testing if, in the end, USADA will not stand by it?”
And why won’t they stand by it? Why did they work so hard to bypass their own standards, and obtain a “victory” in defiance of clinical procedure? It couldn’t be because the agency would have felt institutionally embarrassed by letting Armstrong walk away after picking a fight with him, could it? Or was personal embarrassment by certain top bureaucrats the issue? Did the agency feel a need to mount a high-profile head above its fireplace, to prove its importance? When does the investigation of this investigation start, and who will conduct it?
The USADA has banned Armstrong from cycling for life, and attempted to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles, but it appears that only the International Cycling Union has the power to take his titles away. You would think the USADA bureaucrats would have known that before issuing a pronouncement they have no power to enforce… but they don’t exactly seem to be sticklers for the rules over there, do they?
“The bottom line is I played by the rules that were put in place by the UCI, WADA and USADA when I raced,” said Armstrong. “The idea that athletes can be convicted today without positive A and B samples, under the same rules and procedures that apply to athletes with positive tests, perverts the system and creates a process where any begrudged ex-teammate can open a USADA case out of spite or for personal gain or a cheating cyclist can cut a sweetheart deal for themselves. It’s an unfair approach, applied selectively, in opposition to all the rules. It’s just not right.”
People have said plenty of bad things about Armstrong, whose admirable qualities and sporting achievements do not insulate him from personal criticism. In that respect, he’s just like the rest of the human race. But his critics can’t seem to do two things: prove he was cheating, or beat him in a bicycle race.
The Washington Post quotes USDA chief Tygart, who must have been struggling to hold back his tears: “It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes. This is a heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture of sport, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe and honest competition.”
He got the “win-at-all-costs culture” part right, but it’s not the sport of cycling we need to be worried about.