|Lance Armstrong (from the internet)|
If I doze off while reading a cycling article, I run the risk of dreaming about Lance Armstrong. The dream goes like this: I’m watching TV while Armstrong addresses a press conference. Armstrong gives his questioner “the look” and angrily wags a finger as he says, “I did not admit to drug abuse around that woman...Ms. Andreu.” Then my head bobs up a little, but I don’t wake up. Instead, I see Armstrong angrily wagging his finger again as he says, “I did not give used syringes to that masseuse...Ms. O’Reilly.”
My head bobs again, but I’m still in it, and Armstrong angrily wags his finger as he says, “I did not take EPO with that teammate...Mr. Hamilton.” And then, I see it repeated as I hear, “I did not do blood transfusions with that teammate...Mr. Landis.” By now, my neck is sore from dozing in a chair, and the pain partially wakens me, and I’m caught between dreaming and an incoherent waking state. And I kinda think I hear denials about something with teammates named George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer.
|Levi, Lance and George (from the internet)|
Implicit in the “everyone did it” defense is the notion that Armstrong didn’t competitively benefit from doping. After all, if he only did what everyone else was doing, his achievements are the same as they would have been if no one had cheated. Unfortunately, both the premise and the conclusion are wrong.
|Marion Jones liked to state that |
she never failed a doping test before she
later admitted to doping in the BALCO scandal
(from the internet)
Even common sense tells us that different people respond differently to the same drugs. Whether it’s guzzling down Armstrong’s beloved Shiner beer or taking blood pressure meds, some bodies react more strongly to the drug influence than others. Indeed, Armstrong himself survived advanced metastatic cancer because his body responded so well to the chemotherapeutic drugs. His beating those odds warrants celebration. But should he be feted for athletic achievement that may have resulted because his body—like Kelli White’s—responded more strongly to doping?
|Kelli White (from the internet)|
A very common doping practice is to claim a medical condition which allows the use of drugs otherwise prohibited. Ever wonder why so many more athletes have asthma than the general population? It allows them to gain a competitive advantage with clenbuterol. Ever wonder how Armstrong skated away from his positive test for corticoids in the 1999 Tour de France? He retroactively claimed it came from his use of ointment to treat saddle sores (even though he had both officially and unofficially declared he wasn’t taking anything needing a medical exemption).
In the 1990s the most serious form of cheating involved recombinant erythropoietin (r-EPO). It gave endurance athletes an advantage that made their performances untouchable by anyone not using it. Cyclists weren’t tested to detect r-EPO until 2000, and so, in 1999, Armstrong used it. But in 2004, retroactive testing of samples taken during the 1999 Tour showed Armstrong’s use of r-EPO. It would be foolish to claim the peloton was clean before the 1999 Tour began, but as doping scientist Michael Ashenden and blogger Andy Shen point out, the retroactive testing strongly suggested that unlike Armstrong, over 90% of his competitors were not using r-EPO during the race.
The Festina drug bust in 1998 had scared most of the peloton about crackdowns in the Tour de France. Just like Armstrong, most of the Festina riders could have smugly said that they’d never failed a drug test. But the police caught their soigneur smuggling a carful of drugs for use at the Tour, and their director subsequently confessed to the teamwide doping program. The aftermath left most cheaters in fear, and as the 2004 retroactive tests show, they refrained from using r-EPO. And yet, Armstrong brazenly pushed on and won his first Tour de France. So far from Armstrong merely doing what everyone else was doing, he led the charge back to the most performance-enhancing doping.
Cheating athletes modify their behavior as newer tests are developed. They learn to take what’s not tested for, and to microdose, and to take masking agents that haven’t yet been outlawed. Victor Conte has joked that athletes who get caught are really failing an IQ test. But sometimes they’re actually failing a means test because the advisors who know the best and latest ways to cheat often charge the most. Dr. Michele Ferrari is noted as the best advisor for cyclists who want to cheat, and he’s also the most expensive. So naturally, Armstrong—who always had more than his less affluent competitors—got the best.
Thus, both the premises and conclusions of those who slough off Armstrong’s cheating are incorrect. He wasn’t merely doing what everyone else was doing. He was worse.
Those who came forward to challenge Armstrong’s performances found that his unsportsmanlike behavior was not just about the bike. As David Walsh documents in From Lance to Landis, the US Postal soigneur Emma O’Reilly paid for telling the truth. She disclosed how Armstrong unloaded a package of dirty syringes on her at the airport, and how he had her smuggle drugs for him, and how he had her get concealer makeup to cover his EPO injection bruises, and how she overheard the team officials deciding on a backdated prescription to cover Armstrong’s positive for corticoids. For disclosing those damning incidents, she was smeared as a liar, and she was tarred with innuendo of sexual misbehavior.
Betsy Andreu truthfully testified about Armstrong’s hospital admission only because she was subpoenaed and was unwilling to commit perjury. She disliked Armstrong because he had dragged the team—including her husband—into doping. In fact, she had almost called off her wedding to Frankie after hearing Armstrong tell a doctor about his own drug usage. Then three years later. when she saw Frankie pulling for Armstrong up Sestriere in the 1999 Tour, she suspected Frankie had succumbed to the pressure, and she was furious. Frankie then rode clean in 2000, but he lost his usefulness to Armstrong, and he had to retire at the end of the season.
|Frankie and Betsy Andreu (from the internet)|
During the 2004 Tour, Frankie Andreu secretly recorded a conversation with Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s attorney and agent. Stapleton never disagreed that Armstrong had admitted using drugs. Rather, the purpose of the conversation was to get Frankie to convince his wife, Betsy, to make a statement critical of Walsh—to make Walsh look like a liar so Armstrong could skate once more. When Frankie relayed the request to Betsy, she told him, “Get that out of your head, Frankie. I’m not making any statement.”
|Greg and Lance (from the internet)|
If one assumes the better of Armstrong, those rich CEOs didn’t advise LeMond to lay off Armstrong in 2001 because Armstrong had first pressured them. Rather, it might be assumed, they sought to protect Armstrong for their own financial reasons. The Lance Armstrong brand, as his agent Bill Stapleton noted to Texas Monthly back in 2001, was completed with his victory in the Tour de France. “You layered in family man, hero...and everybody wanted him.” One can assume that sponsors and associates made him millions because it was also to their advantage. But if the truth of Armstrong’s cheating became the general public perception, their investment in the Lance Armstrong brand would lose value.
|Greg and Lance (from the internet)|
Lost with those lies are the dreams of the honest athlete. At every turn, he will find the money chasing the cheaters, the unfair advantage of doping compounded by the institutional opportunities afforded the winners. For him, there’s no coach compensated by a corporate sponsor, no state-of-the-art training facilities courtesy of a major university or an Olympic development program, no masseuse to work his tired muscles, and certainly, no team manager to wash his workout clothes.
And so, after the honest athlete’s aching arms throw a load into the washing machine, neither the reverberating clunk of a top loader nor the solid click of a front loader is quite the sound he once dreamt of. There is no roar of a crowd nor even the clipped question of a hurried sportswriter. The washer will swish and spin and remove the soil and smells that once sullied the synthetics while the rhythm of repetitive training gradually succumbs to the never-ending drone of public adoration for his doping competitors. The cheaters take the victories, grab the headlines, and pocket the money. And his freshly laundered workout clothes helped finance the endorsements of the champion dopers. The honest athlete must wonder if there isn’t a machine to wash the dirt from his sport and remove the heartache from not having a fair chance to compete.
“I’m sorry for people who don’t believe in miracles,” Armstrong has said. Well, no, they just don’t leave cookies and milk next to the Christmas tree wondering if they’ll get another yellow rubber bracelet. When they grew up, they found their childhood dreams snuffed by malignant lies and metastatic disregard for the importance of honest achievement.
But, hey, it’s only lying about drugs.