Prior to Lance Armstrong’s “mea culpa” I was almost relieved to learn that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o had for months milked a relationship with his non-existent, fantasy girlfriend, who enjoyed a timely death. With this jewel from Deadspin.com, I knew that all was right with the world and we should be perfectly content in the digital zone of shifting personas, fictions, and occasional lies, all in service to our desperate need to be amused and at the same time pay homage to Emily Dickinson, the poet who advised us more than a century ago “To tell all the truth but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies.”
I prepared for the interviews, now called the Great Redemption or the Stale Invention by those looking for the CliffsNotes version of psyche, by reviewing the history of doping in professional cycling and reflecting on the general indifference over time to this infraction on the part of cycling associations, sponsors and the media. All of this hardboiled information is only a Wikepedia page away.
And the historical chatter plays nicely into Armstrong’s narrative. I was editor and publisher of Bicycling magazine for a decade prior to Armstrong’s mountainous lies. The magazine’s focus was on fitness and recreational riding, but we were certainly aware of instances of professional doping. When we learned that a number of American cyclists had engaged in blood-doping during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, we were late to the fray. Blood-doping was not illegal at this time, but the episode did not mark the magazine’s finest hour. Certainly advertisers and sponsors are not interested in this seamy side. This is not what 7-Eleven, then owned by the Southland Corp., signed on for when it sponsored cycling in the LA Olympics.
I halfway expected Armstrong to tell Oprah that the first confirmed case of doping was by a Welsh cyclist in 1886 who might have died from a cocktail of cocaine, caffeine, and strychnine. There’s a good chance that the story is apocryphal, but it would have added another dead persona to an all-too-familiar refrain. The devil and the weight of history made me do it. I’ve been told that in 1930 the Tour de France organizers informed riders that they would not be providing drugs anymore. This is much too precious to be untrue. In any event, doping went underground. Just barely.
The history of the Tour is a history of riders trying to beat the rules. The entire Belgium team had to drop out of the race in 1956, collectively complaining that they had eaten bad fish the night before at a hotel that didn’t serve the flesh. The fish story seemed to have currency at least until the 1970s. Renowned French rider Jacques Anquetil is quoted as saying to the press that “only a fool would ride the Bordeaux-Paris race on just water.” Apparently, President Charles de Gaul praised the racer for his forthrightness. I would have been more taken in by Armstrong if he dropped a little French into his cold-as-ice, fishy recantation.
In 1965, performance -enhancing drugs were declared illegal. Riders protested but found ways around the tests, such as carrying someone else’s urine in a condom or other vessels handed out along the way by the little lame balloon man. Over time, cyclists got smarter, such as using masking agents to hide steroids. In the late-1980’s, EPO, which boosted red cell production, entered the mix. In 1991, the entire Dutch team, suspected of EPO use, withdrew from the race due to food poisoning. And so it went.
The storyline is sadly familiar. Doping has been endemic in professional cycling for a century-and-a-half. Racers took a wide array of cocktails to get the advantage. The various cycling governing bodies have been slow to respond to changes in technology and rider ingenuity. Given the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) and its US counterpart (USADA), professional cycling is now much cleaner. But the record shows that as recently as 2011 and 2012 cyclists were caught using illegal drugs in the Tour de France and other major races.
Historically, the International Cycling Association (the UCI), which governs the sport, appears not to have gotten in front of this enormous problem in a timely manner and by some accounts looked the other way, though the “biological passport” introduced a few years ago has certainly helped. Still, the International Olympic Committee has informally suggested that it might be in cycling’s best interest to take time off from the Olympics to get its house in order.
Understandably, professional cycling is keen to put the Lance Armstrong era behind it. Phil Liggett, a longtime television commentator for the Tour and until recently an Armstrong supporter, wants the sport to move past “that era” to a new day with new blood, so to speak. Fair enough, but those of us in the media who have been beating the drums might also be held to an accounting.
Professional cycling is a business and therefore is about the money. Armstrong said during the interview that he had lost $75 million in one day when all his sponsors left him. This is when the world really started to take notice. I heard nothing particularly new in the Armstrong interviews. His rationale—everybody dopes and he was just leveling the playing field—while unacceptable, nonetheless holds at least a grain of truth.
While there were a number of gutsy journalists and authors, especially David Walsh, who exposed the facts early on, it took the USADA , called earlier a “nefarious drug agency” by Liggett, to roll out 1,000 pages of under-oath testimony from Armstrong’s team members and associates to bring an abundance of toxic truth to the proceedings. In the long run, this will prove to be the real story, not the Oprah soap.
If as reported Paramount plans to release a movie about the Lance Armstrong affair, it might want to devote at least a few scenes to the legal dance about doping jurisdiction between and among the USADA, the UCI, and USA Cycling, its American arm. You can read the documents at www.usada.org. I have read them all and don’t get the sense that the UCI’s first consideration was as a seeker of truth. But the film maker should move past that and get to the Floyd Landis affidavit under oath, which has provided the basis for a whistle blower’s suit enjoined by the federal government against Armstrong and his business associates.
Landis, an Armstrong teammate and a Tour de France winner who lost his crown due to doping, seemed to be this unconvincing guy originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. On camera, he had neither the charm nor the Armstrong charisma and few appeared to believe him. That has changed. As it stands, the affidavit claims that Armstrong and his associates, with big team sponsorship money from the US Postal Service in their back pocket, schemed from the very beginning to employ systematic doping to win at least six Tour medals, thus owning the record.
The affidavit also states that Armstrong donated $100,000 to the UCI for its anti-doping work in 2001. UCI acknowledges this, but denies nefarious intent. Landis claims that Armstrong’s business partner Thomas Weisel funneled through a foundation “approximately $500,000 to $725,000 each year” (2000 through 2003) to USA Cycling, the US governing body. Landis states under oath that this was an effort to control the official US race sanctioning body. The document reads that Mr. Landis “believes that these conflicts of interest and overlapping relationships between USA Cycling, the USA Cycling Foundation, and Thomas Weisel helped make it possible for the USPS Team to carry on an extensive program of systematic doping team athletes during the period relevant to this complaint.” And it has been widely reported that an Armstrong representative offered between $200,000 and $250,000 in 2004 to USADA for anti-doping activities and it was immediately rejected. Armstrong has denied this.
As someone who spent more than a decade in the cycling media business, I am less interested in Armstrong’s deceit, which has been whispered about for years at trade shows and bike events, than in whether the various governing bodies and their agents enabled his behavior and received financial consideration in return. Racers, casual riders, sponsors and advertisers will likely want these questions answered too.
Armstrong has cast a huge, damaging and suffocating shadow over professional cycling for almost two decades, steamrolling his opposition and obscuring fine accomplishments by other American riders, especially Greg LeMond, now the only American winner of the Tour (three times; in 1986,’89 and ’90). LeMond suffered Armstrong’s wrath and the business consequences for raising doping issues, including the loss of his bike business.
The Washington Post quotes a LeMond post-interview Facebook note in which the Tour winner calls for UCI officials to resign: “You know damn well what has been going on in cycling ….The problem for sport is not drugs but corruption. You are the epitome of the word corruption.”
The UCI has announced an Independent Commission to investigate doping issues but without a limited Truth and Reconciliation and Amnesty program. USADA CEO Travis Tygart responded that the “UCI’s refusal to agree to allow a limited opportunity for riders to come forward and be truthful without fear of retribution or retaliation from the UCI” suggests that the “UCI has blindfolded and handcuffed the Independent Commission to ensure a pre-determined outcome (www.usada.org).”
One can understand LeMond’s anger after what can be called a long and painful “shunning” by the cycling powers. But questions remain: how could Armstrong dope for so long, involve so many people and often in plain view without the governing bodies and other officials and stake-holders being aware of it?
Time is not on the side of the crusaders. German anti-doping specialist Mario Thevis noted last year that “100 variants of EPO may exist without a test (www.velonation.com).” Professional bike racing may soon face a time when drug doping becomes too sophisticated for the national and international governing bodies to monitor.
And that would not be good for business.