Last week The Wall Street Journal published a 15 page leaked letter from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) addressed to Lance Armstrong and five others closely associated with his cycling career.
That letter and events that flow from it will change the course of professional road cycling forever. Armstrong’s reputation and deified place in sporting history – a position that for many is already suspect – now stands to be torn to shreds.
Roll back your wheels to the early 1990s.
Lance Armstrong has just won his first big cycling race – the World Professional Road Race Championship – in a wet and wild Oslo, Norway in 1993. This he followed with a few stage wins in the Tour de France later that year and in 1995. Armstrong’s breakthrough win in the “classics” was at the 1996 Flèche Wallonne, a win that saw him follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Greg LeMond, who won the Tour de France in 1986, 1989 and 1990.**
Armstrong retired from professional road cycling in 1996 following a diagnosis of testicular cancer and, following a legendary recovery, he returned in 1999 to win seven Tours de France back-to-back through to 2005.
The Lance Armstrong business plan for that recovery and subsequent domination of world professional cycling might look something like this:
Gather the best, toughest and brightest cyclists, lawyers, spin-doctors and support staff around me and meld them into a team that will carry all before it. Become the face of road racing and an icon of sport across the globe. Get rich beyond imagining, as will many who stay loyal to me. Raise the profile of cancer awareness through good public works and develop a charitable foundation and closely related commercial arm to promote not just cancer awareness but also my own profile. Make enemies along the way but prevail by sheer force of will – and better lawyers, public relations spinners – than anyone else. Enforce the omerta. Take this to the world and the world will take notice.
That plan worked well – an entrepreneurial American (and a Texan to boot) – spots a golden opportunity and grabs it fast by tooth and claw red with capitalist zeal.
Professional road cycling B.A. (Before Armstrong) was operated by an odd mix (as compared to other international team sports) of privately-owned teams riding in privately-owned races and governed by a complex web of national and international sporting regulators.
These arrangements suited all involved in a close-knit informal club that jealously protected the interests of its members and enforced a strict internal code – the “omerta” – particularly when awkward questions arose about the use of drugs and performance enhancing techniques – issues that had long-plagued professional cycling.
All that changed with the arrival of the Texan and the idea that a rider could become a brand sold to the world. Professional road cycling would never be the same again. Some elements of the old ways survived – particularly the “omerta” that dropped like a cone of absolute and rigorously enforced silence whenever performance-enhancing issues arose – largely because it served to prevent the exposure of cycling’s darkest secrets.
Armstrong, his brand and his gang went from commercial and performance strength to strength.
As Charles Howe at Youngstown State University revealed in this presentation in 2008:
… the Lance Armstrong Foundation (aka Livestrong) … provides support and education to those stricken with cancer, and helps to fund cancer research. His two books, It’s Not About the Bike, and Every Second Counts, were bestsellers.
Armstrong’s win went beyond not only cycling, but sport itself; the universal dread of cancer and his triumph over it made him an inspiration and symbol of hope for millions around the world, showing there could not only be life after cancer, but a better life than before.
There is no better evidence of this than the ubiquitous Livestrong bracelet, introduced in May 2004. Almost overnight, it became a cultural icon, and to date, more than 60 million have sold worldwide for at least $1 each or been given away with Nike merchandise.
As his agent, Bill Stapleton explained, “In the beginning we had this brash brand of Texan…a phenomenon. Then you layered in cancer survivor, which broadened and deepened the brand, but even in 1998 there was very little corporate interest in Lance. Then he won the Tour de France, and the brand was complete. You layered in family man, hero, comeback of the century, all these things. And then everybody wanted him.”
So far so good for the victim/hero/saint business model designed and delivered by the smartest guys in the room.
But too many questions, big questions, lingered about how Armstrong managed his extraordinary feats of power and endurance.
Those issues have been covered elsewehere in abundance – for a useful academic overview see Charles Howe’s useful review of professional cycling here.
Part VI – A Contemporary Challenge looks at Armstrong’s career and contains some useful links to other material of interest. For a look at what might happen if “Lance Armstrong went to jail and Livestrong went away, that would be a huge setback in our war against cancer, right?“ this January 2012 piece by Bill Gifford in Outside magazine is essential reading.
From an Australian perspective, I’ve looked at Armstrong’s effect on Australian cycling, politics and health funding here and in Crikey more than a few times – see the list of those pieces below.
But back to the present. If “the smartest guys in the room” that engineered the rise and rise of Armstrong have relied upon unlawful methods to do so then all of a sudden they start looking like “a conspiracy of dunces“* instead.
The charges against Armstrong and others in the USADA letter relate to his professional cycling career from 1998 through to his (second) retirement in 2005 then his comeback through 2009 to 2011 and include:
The USADA letter goes on to state that:
With respect to Lance Armstrong, numerous riders, team personnel and others will testify based on personal knowledge acquired either through observing Armstrong dope or through Armstrong’s admissions to doping to them that Lance Armstrong used EPO (Erythropoitin), blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone during the period from before 1998 through 2005 and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and hGH (human Growth Hormone) through 1996.
Numerous riders will also testify that Lance Armstrong gave to them, encouraged them to use and/or assisted them in using doping products and/or methods, including EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone during the period from 1999 through 2005.
Lance Armstrong’s doping is further evidenced by the data from blood collections obtained by the UCI from Lance Armstrong in 2009 and 2010. This data is fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions.
Armstrong has consistently and vigorously denied previous claims that he had any involvement in doping. In relation to the USADA charges he said on his website that:
These are the very same charges and the same witnesses that the Justice Department chose not to pursue after a two-year investigation. These charges are baseless, motivated by spite and advanced through testimony bought and paid for by promises of anonymity and immunity. Although USADA alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy extended over more than 16 years, I am the only athlete it has chosen to charge. USADA’s malice, its methods, its star-chamber practices, and its decision to punish first and adjudicate later all are at odds with our ideals of fairness and fair play. I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one. That USADA ignores this fundamental distinction and charges me instead of the admitted dopers says far more about USADA, its lack of fairness and this vendetta than it does about my guilt or innocence.
Between 1998 and 2005 Armstrong rode with the United States Postal Service team (later the Discovery Channel team) between 1998 and 2005. In 2009 he rode at the Santos Tour Down Under in Adelaide with the Astana Team and 2010 and 2011 Armstrong rode with the RadioShack team.
More than the charges against Armstrong, his staff and medical doctors, USADA alleges that all six respondents engaged in a doping conspiracy.
USADA allege that central to this alleged conspiracy was a cover-up.
Top of the list of the co-respondents to the USADA allegations is Johan Bruyneel, currently Director Sportif with the Team RadioShack-Nissan and Director Sportif with the United States Postal Service, Discovery Channel, Astana and RadioShack cycling teams.
Bruyneel is charged with the possession, trafficking and administration – or attempted administration of prohibited substance and/or methods, “assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting covering up and other complicity” involving anti-doping violations and various aggravating circumstances which would justify a longer period of ineligibility than the standard sanction.
The USADA letter states that numerous riders will testify that Bruyneel “gave to them and/or encouraged them to use doping products and/or prohibited methods”. In addition, witnesses “will also testify that Bruyneel worked actively to conceal rule violations by himself and others throughout the period from 1999 through the present.”
Bruyneel, as reported Saturday by ESPN, also vigorously denied the charges:
“I have never participated in any doping activity and I am innocent of all charges,” said Bruyneel, a Belgian who is currently manager of the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team.
Of the others charged by USADA, VeloNews reports:
… what’s surprising about the USADA report leaked Wednesday is the inclusion of several other key players in the alleged “doping conspiracy,” as USADA officials have labeled it, who have long maintained a lower profile. Among them are three Spaniards — two doctors and one trainer — who could find themselves garnering some unwanted attention as USADA pushes forward with its controversial case against Armstrong. Pedro Celaya and Luis del Moral, both licensed medical doctors in Spain, and trainer Pepe Martí have long been associated with the teams managed by Bruyneel since 1999. In Spain, all three have quite a bit of notoriety within the cycling community, but beyond the Pyrénées little is known about them.
And one of the big fish for ASADA – at least on the medical side – is Dr. Michele Ferrari – an Italian medical doctor long associated with elite athletics and performance. Ferrari has been silent about these recent alleagtions. Dr. Ferrari’s Wikipedia page contains the following reference:
Perhaps the most famous athlete to have been coached or advised by Ferrari is Lance Armstrong. Ferrari was involved with the US Postal Service Cycling Team until October 2004, helping Armstrong train during several of his seven straight Tour de France victories. Two years after Ferrari had been found not guilty of the all of the original charges related to distributing drugs to leading riders, Armstrong responded to Ferrari’s guilty verdict for malpractice in the Italian Court case with the following statement:
I was disappointed to learn of the Italian court’s judgment against Dr. Michele Ferrari. Dr. Ferrari has been a longtime friend and trusted adviser to me and the USPS team, during which time he never suggested, prescribed or provided me with any performance-enhancing drugs. I was pleased to hear that Dr. Ferrari was acquitted of the charge of providing illegal drugs to athletes. I am not surprised by that verdict. As a result of today’s developments, the USPS team and I have suspended our professional affiliation with Dr. Ferrari as we await the release of the full verdict, which will contain Judge Maurizio Passerini’s reasoning.
Notwithstanding Armstrong’s claims to have disassociated himself and his team from Ferrari, Italian sources reported yesterday that two years later Armstrong allegedly made payments of $465,000 to Ferrari in 2006. Dr. Ferrari’s Wikipedia page lists a number of athletes “associated with Dr. Ferrari“. That list includes the Australian cyclists Michael Rogers and Cadel Evans.
In Australia the organisers of the Santos Tour Down Under enthusiastically embraced Armstrong – led by (then) South Australian Premier Mike Rann and Tour Director Mike Turtur. The TDU races in 2009 and 2011 topped-and-tailed Armstrong’s brief and underwhelming return to professional cycling. The TDU website describes Armstrong’s contribution as:
The Santos Tour Down Under achieved another major coup when cycling legend and cancer survivor, Lance Armstrong, decided to make his comeback to professional road cycling at the 2009 race.
USADA has asked that Armstrong and his co-accused supply them with submissions to the first stage of the inquiry by the end of this week for assessment by the USADA Anti-Doping Review Board. If these cases proceed beyond that Board USADA will recommend sanctions that “may include up to a lifetime period of ineligibility from participation in sport.”
All of a sudden the smartest guys in the room don’t seem so clever after all.
Here are some of the pieces I’ve written on Lance Armstrong, the TDU and the involvement of the South Australian government – among others – over the past few years.
* Dear Mike, we need to talk about Lance… - From May 2011 – “Surely it is now time for Mr Rann and his minions to finally cast Lance Armstrong adrift and start answering the many outstanding questions about the relationships between his government and Armstrong?”
* Some (unanswered) questions for South Australian Premier Mike Rann - From January 2011 - My questions to Premier Rann concern the amounts paid to the American cyclist Mr Lance Armstrong for his appearance at the Tour Down Under in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
* Did the LIVESTRONG Cancer Research Centre pay Lance Armstrong for use of his trademark? - January 2011 - Some questions put to the Adelaide Flinders Medical Centre about whether the FMC made payment to Mr Lance Armstrong, Livestrong.org, Livestrong.com or the LAF for the right to use the LIVESTRONG™ logo in association with the promotion and operations of the LIVESTRONG™ Cancer Research Centre.
* Armstrong to quit TdU & leave legacy as “saddest deception in sports history”? - January 2011 – a local follow-up to an article in the American sports magazine Sports Illustrated (SI) published new revelations that go to the heart of Armstrong’s credibility – both as a rider and as a role model in his sport.
* An open letter to Lance Armstrong… - January 2011 – some questions about Lance’s donation of $50 to the Queensland flood victims.
* Doping in pro-cycling – evil riders, institutionalised corruption, both or neither? - September 2010 – A guest post by Martin Hardie, Lecturer in Law at the Deakin University, Australia from the September 2010 Editorial in the Journal of the International Network of Humanistic Doping Research based at the Department of Sport Science, University of Aarhus, Denmark.
* Lance Armstrong, “yes-men” and the brave new world of Australian cycling – January 2010 - A rough(ish) English translation of my article that appeared in the Spanish daily newspaper El Pais yesterday.
* Dear Mike Rann, Show us the money … please – January 2010 – A record of some (largely unanswered) questions put by me to (then) South Australian Premier Mike Rann and staff at the Tour Down Under.
* Valverde, the “Texan”, TDU2010 and what The Australian didn’t tell you… – January 2010 – “there are some in the Australian media that would rather gouge their eyes out with a pen than write a negative word about the demi-god that is Lance Armstrong.”
* – A nod to A Confederacy of Dunces, a lovely novel written by American novelist John Kennedy Toole published in 1980 – a few months after his suicide.
** In an earlier edit of this piece I wrongly identified lance Armstrong as being “the first American to win a classic European road race.” That honour of course went to Greg LeMond.