Its not about the dope

I’m going to start this off by saying I am not a Lance Armstrong Fan. Never have been. As impressed as I am by his life story and his ability to win Tours de France, his making plastic bracelets a fundraising phenom, and his raising of more than half a Billion dollars for cancer victims, I didn’t like his cycling style, his team tactics, or his attitude. He made bike racing boring and predictable, and created world where people will pay $10,000 for a Trek. Worse, the type of fan he created irritates the hell out of me – the type who knows nothing of the sport except that Lance (based on 7 Tour wins) is the “greatest cycler ever”. Most have never heard of Eddy Merckx , never mind Fausto Coppi or the Milan-San Remo.

That out of the way, I am on Lance’s side here. It is time for USADA to end this ridiculous witch hunt against Lance and cycling in general. Lance never failed a drug test in his career. Did Lance use banned substances? Possibly. Did he break the rules? Not likely. Did he gain an unfair advantage? No. Does this action do anything to get the scourge of doping out of sports? Definitely not. Here is where my (constantly evolving) opinion is now, as a life-long fan of cycling:

I’m going to come right out and suggest no-one wins the Tour de France eating peanut butter sandwiches. The Tour is, unquestionably, the most gruelling major sporting event in the world. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a comparative walk in the park. These guys spend more than three weeks riding their bikes an average of 4 1/2 hours a day, racing against the fastest guys in the world. That is twice as much time as it takes a world champion to run a marathon, yet these guys do it every day for three weeks. They average 40km/h for three weeks, over hills, through rain sleet and snow, with someone always on the attack. If they lose concentration for a moment, their tour can end. They crash, they break bones, they get saddle sores, they pull muscles, they get dehydrated, they are challenged even getting the 5,000 calories a day down their gullet to keep from going hypoglycemic. They don’t stop to eat, they don’t stop get stitches put in. They don’t stop.

To survive this event, never mind dominate it, cyclists need to take a scientific approach to eating, drinking, vitamins, pain control, and metabolism. Everything they take in is accounted, the team doctors will know if a rider is not taking in enough calories or water. There are also, no doubt, nutritional supplements as part of the routine. There may also be antihistamines, analgesics, anti-inflammatory medicine, antacids, antibiotics, probiotics, vitamin cocktails, and all number of things those of us not on the cutting edge of sport nutrition don’t even know exist.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Cycling Union (UCI) know this, and they produce and regularly update a list of banned and controlled substances. The rule is you cannot take these substances, and the way that rule is enforced is through doping controls. Cycling, being the historic source of all doping controls in sport (Google “The Convicts of the Road”, “History of 6-day races”, or “Tom Simpson” if you doubt that statement) has the most aggressive anti-doping controls of any professional sport, with athletes subject to random in-competition and out-of-competition tests, regardless of their level of success, reinforced by mandatory testing off all top finishers on major events.

So put those last two paragraphs together, and the inevitable result is “performance enhancing drugs” becoming a loaded statement. In theory, there is a strict definition: if it is on the banned list, and it is found in your body, you have broken the rules (let’s avoid the Silken Laumann defence for the moment). In reality, that line is much fuzzier. There are, no doubt, performance enhancing substances that are not on the list, and there are ways to apply banned substances such that their use may or may not be in contravention, or provide no advantage. I suspect that all professional cyclists use something other than peanut butter sandwiches and Gatorade during the tour, and for many of them, there are substances involved at one time or another that tread on that fuzzy line of legal, be they complex vitamin cocktails, new drugs, protein shakes or pain killers. Does that mean they are all “doping”?

Ultimately, we are talking about the rules of a sport here, and rules need a strict definition, but also need a rational, predictable enforcement mechanism. Look at baseball: the “rule” says that the strike zone is over the plate between the nipples and the knees. In reality, the strike zone changes with the batter, pitcher and catcher, totally at the whim of the Umpire: the strike zone is wherever the Umpire says it is. So the pitcher, the batters and the catcher spend the first part of the game discovering what the limits of that zone are, and adapt. Similarly, WADA creates banned substances lists and creates testing protocols, and the athletes and coaches adapt to that. Knowing they cannot hope to catch every non-peanut-butter-sandwich substance on the market, WADA constantly updates its banned list and its testing protocols, as they should. The goal is to, as far as possible, create a level playing field and limit the use of substances that will harm the athletes (see Tom Simpson). However, the ultimate measure of whether an athlete cheated is whether he got caught by the protocols doing something that is banned. That is the predictable, fair, level-playing-field rule that the athletes live by – the ever-evolving strike zone.

Lance never failed a test and never violated a testing protocol: therefore, he never broke the rules. Yet here he is, two years after retirement, defending accusations from 13 years ago.

This is Canada, so I’m going to use a Hockey allegory. 1999 (the year of Lance’s first Tour win) is also the year that Dallas beat Buffalo in Game 6 overtime to win the Stanley Cup. Imagine if the World Hockey Federation (who have no authority over the Cup, just as the US Anti-doping Agency- USADA – has no authority over the Tour) decided this summer to hold a hearing to decide whether Brett Hull’s foot was in the crease on the final goal. Brett Hull would (appropriately) tell them to get bent, and not take part. Imagine if then the WHF “stripped” Hull of this Stanley Cup ring. That is what is happening to Lance. Why not go back and see if the sticks Brett’s father used to win the 1961 Stanley Cup have legal curves? Surely using video technology we can measure them now? Or maybe some of his 1960s teamamtes will testify against him?

Lance never failed a drug test in his career. I keep repeating this, because Lance Armstrong is likely the most tested athlete in the history of sports. Literally hundreds of urine and blood samples were collected from Lance (more than 500 according to him): before races, after races, and during the offseason. There was no “off season” for his testing. The WADA could show up at his door, anywhere in the world, at any time of the day or night, and ask him to produce a sample. And they did, even getting him out of the shower while on vacation one day, in a famous case. As the North American media talks up this case (while getting most of the facts wrong), and as the AM Sports Radio Jocks talk about how all cycling is doped and how they finally got the cheater-in-chief, keep this in mind:. Lance, in his career, took and passed more random drug tests during his career than all of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League players combined. How many members of the Boston Bruins or the LA Kings have ever provided a drug sample, before, during, or after their Stanley Cup win?

So why is the USADA spending all this energy chasing Lance Armstrong, two years after his retirement? Is it any wonder he might see this as being a little vindictive? Lance Armstrong as a victim is not an easy thing for me to rationalize, but the case is pretty compelling.

As an aside, what does “stripping “ Lance of his 7 tour wins achieve? First off, USADA does not have that authority, the UCI has been clear about that, so strike one for every headline you read today on the topic. But say it happened. Who won those tours? Here are the results of Lance’s 7 wins:

Year         Winner           2nd         3rd
1999         Armstrong       Zulle       Escartin-Coti
2000         Armstrong       Ullrich    Beloki
2001         Armstrong       Ullrich    Beloki
2002         Armstrong       Beloki     Rumsas
2003         Armstrong       Ullrich    Vinokourov
2004         Armstrong       Kloden    Basso
2005         Armstrong       Basso      Ullrich

Zulle failed a drug test, for Haematocrit, was suspended along with the rest of his team from a Tour, and admitted to using EPO.

Escartin-Coti is untainted – which is why no-one remembers who he is.

Ullrich failed an out-of-competition drug test for amphetamines, and was involved in the Operation Puerto doping scandal, eventually being sanctioned.

Beloki is relatively untainted, as he was named in Operation Puerto, but was cleared of any wrong doing and never failed a test: essentially the same as Lance.

Rumsas tested positive for EPO, and was arrested for possessing a drug store of substances while driving around Europe.

Vinokourov failed a doping test and was given a 2-year suspension, came back to win this year’s Olympic gold Medal.

Kloeden never failed a test, but was “alleged” to have doped in the 2006 Tour. Nothing proven, so we’ll put him in the same category as Lance.

Basso served a 2-year suspension for his involvement in the Operation Puerto blood doping scandal, after admitting to illegal doping.

So to whom do we give Lance’s victories? How far down the tested-positive-allegation rabbit hole do we need to go? What is the end game here, and what is the USADA trying to achieve? Cycling has a long record of doping offences, because unlike almost every sport you watch on TV every day: they test their athletes, and have real sanctions for those who are caught breaking the rules.

Perhaps it is time for the USADA to start spending this energy and money doing things that will reduce the use of illegal and unsafe substances in sport (like, say, getting steroids out of High School football and junior hockey?) and leave Lance the hell alone.

And may Lance, for all he has had to deal with and for his spectacular fundraising for a good cause, never have to buy his own drink again. I don’t like him, and wouldn’t relish sharing beers with him, but I’ll buy him one from across the room.

Leave a Reply