As a cycling fan, there is something troubling about the case of Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour de France winner issued a statement on August 23 that he would not participate in the US Anti-Doping Agency arbitration process against him and he now stands to be banned for life for using EPO, blood doping, testosterone, corticosteroids and masking agents to enhance his performance.

There was always something super-human about Armstrong. In 2003 he was measured cranking up the classic peak Alpe d’Huez with a power output of 7Watts/kg. Scientists consider maintaining values much over 6Watts/kg for any length of time to be physiologically impossible — to reach that level you need very high oxygen efficiency and maximum capacity, a feat humans cannot do without external assistance.

More generally, the excellent Science of Sport has crunched the numbers and found that compared to 1996-2006, the period spanning Armstrong’s wins, times are now down 5%. That’s damning evidence of the widespread EPO era and the recent success in curtailing it. In a professional sport of small margins, the advantage is something like a minute over a big climb — a massive leg-up. Not to mention the noted recuperative powers of EPO to back up every day.

If you want to believe Armstrong was clean, and many do, you have to believe he was more than 5% better than everyone else at physiologically impossible levels. And that all the witnesses coming out against him are liars.

His recent statement is also hard to believe. He doesn’t deny the allegations, only complains of there being no physical evidence against him. Constant parroting of “I have passed hundreds of controls” is like saying “there’s no DNA evidence, I didn’t commit the murder”. Murderers are convicted every day without DNA evidence; evidence comes in all kinds. Naturally enough, the USADA has sanctioned many athletes based on testimony alone, including a cyclist in 2008.

Armstrong also likens the process to an unfair witch-hunt, without identifying why he will not receive a fair hearing. The pursuit may be personal, but the process involves an evidential hearing before neutral arbitrators and a US federal court agreed it was fair. In the face of overwhelming evidence, Armstrong’s appears to have opted for plausible deniability. Without an arbitration finding, there will continue to be an element of doubt.

Team Armstrong has threatened and sued the cycling knicks off anyone who has dared to question or criticise. People who wrote books, editors who spruiked stories, even fellow riders who dared to dob.

Meanwhile, Armstrong has failed to articulate a strong position on drugs in cycling. In fact, when Floyd Landis was stripped of the 2006 Tour for doping, Armstrong provided support to Landis. “I believe in him,” he said. Even worse, Armstrong made the only known donations by a professional athlete to their regulating body, in this case the UCI. If this was, as alleged, to cover up a positive test in 2001, then the UCI intervention in the current USADA case is particularly odious: it has not contested the jurisdiction of national drug bodies before.

But what troubles me most about the Armstrong case is the influence on his cancer foundation, Livestrong, which he set up in 1997. Livestrong raises awareness and provides support to cancer patients (but it does not raise money for cancer research). Livestrong flourishes off Armstrong’s incredible athletic prowess and achievements and Armstrong rubs Livestrong dignified cancer sheen over any ethical scruples. When Armstrong first retired in 2005, Livestrong revenues dropped by $US20 million — when Armstrong got back in the saddle, revenues surged back to $US84 million across 2009-10.

What would happen to Livestrong if Armstrong did admit guilt? A whole foundation based on a lie? When a sponsor tried to welch on a $5 million bonus in 2006 because he was a drug cheat, Armstrong seemed to admit the answer in his deposition:

“If you have a doping offence or you test positive, it goes without saying that you’re fired, from all of your contracts … It’s not about money for me. It’s all about the faith that people have put in me over the years. All of that would be erased. So I don’t need it to say in a contract. You’re fired if you test positive. That’s not as important as losing the support of hundreds of millions of people.”

The day after Armstrong’s dropout, Landis was forced into a prosecution deal to pay around half a million in restitution to those he defrauded into contributing to his legal defence. Has Armstrong defrauded anyone?

No one denies Armstrong was a fantastic cyclist — possibly the best of all time — but the Armstrong case takes the corrosion of ethics from personal and commercial relationships to a new level. If he stays in denial and cannot be part of the movement forward, he cannot be considered a true champion.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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