Step closer to closure cycling dearly craves
A final verdict over Armstrong needed to end controversy, writes William Fotheringham
Few of those who were present in Paris in July 2005, when Lance Armstrong retired from professional cycling for the first time, will forget the speech he made as he stood victorious on the podium, resplendent in the yellow jersey, with seven successive Tour de France victories behind him.
He attacked "the people who don't believe in cycling, the cynics, the sceptics; [I feel] sorry for you. You need to believe in these riders. I'm sorry you can't dream big and I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles".
The episode summed up Armstrong's Tour de France career: glory and dominance going hand in hand with controversy and virulent rebuttal. At the time he quit in 2005, it was estimated he had 11 lawyers working on eight legal cases in three countries, ranging from libel suits to a disputed bonus and alleged unfair dismissal.
Last Thursday, the controversy that may conclude the saga, and could end with Armstrong losing some or all of his record seven Tour titles, began, inevitably, with a bevy of vitriolic clauses, this time a pre-emptive strike against the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
Before the news emerged that USADA was to place formal charges against Armstrong and five long-time associates, he got his denial in first: the allegations were "discredited", "baseless" and "motivated by spite".
Armstrong went on the offensive again yesterday morning, challenging USADA through his Twitter account. The Texan tweeted: "Dear usantidoping -- we have now sent you THREE letters requesting all the relevant info in order for me to respond to your 'review board'. Until now there has been no response, not even an acknowledgement of receipt. The knife cuts both ways -- it's time to play by the rules."
The charges brought by USADA are extremely serious. Its 15-page letter to Armstrong, his team manager Johan Bruyneel, his trainer Michele Ferrari and three doctors who worked with the US Postal Service (USPS) team and its subsequent incarnations, is potentially as devastating as the brief release that caused the Festina team to be thrown off the 1998 Tour de France. The Festina statement cited a systematic doping programme that had been financed by the riders and devised by the team managers at the French team.
The USADA case against Armstrong and company is described within the letter as a "consolidated action" against the six named individuals because it alleges they are part of "the USPS conspiracy", which was, the letter claims, "to engage in the use of doping substances and techniques which were either undetectable or difficult to detect in routine drug testing in order to advance the athletic and sporting achievements, financial wellbeing and status of the teams and their riders . . . as well as to prevent the truth regarding doping on the teams . . . from being revealed".
The letter, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, includes the claims that drugs used by the US Postal team included the blood-booster erythropoietin -- nicknamed Edgar Allan Poe -- testosterone, allegedly taken in a cocktail with olive oil, growth hormone and cortisone. It is also alleged that the use of drugs was covered up over the years. Armstrong is the only rider named, says the letter, because of the riders summoned to give evidence to the agency he was the only one who did not respond.
Bruyneel issued a statement on Friday asserting his innocence. "I have never participated in any doping activity and I am innocent of all charges," read a statement on his website, adding that he would co-operate fully with any inquiry. Ferrari, for his part, has always denied administering drugs and was acquitted of the charge in an Italian court in 2004.
Armstrong's career since his comeback from cancer in early 1998 to win the 1999 Tour de France has had two parallel paths. He has become a major US celebrity. Simultaneously, his career has been wracked with controversy, allegations and investigations. He has persistently, vigorously denied doping, beginning with a press conference at the 1999 Tour de France after a positive test for a corticosteroid. At the time, the governing body accepted his explanation that it emanated from a skin cream.
The event that appears to have tipped the balance came two years ago. Armstrong was preparing for his final Tour, having returned to the sport from retirement. His goal was to ride and win to prove he was clean. That spring, Armstrong's former team-mate Floyd Landis went public on his years of doping while riding for US Postal and presented a lengthy document to USA Cycling, the American governing body, which was forwarded to USADA.
Landis had tested positive -- he was the first rider to be disqualified from victory in the Tour de France -- in 2006, after a legal battle that lasted almost a year. With nothing to lose, he produced detailed, if rambling, allegations against Armstrong and US Postal.
He was followed, a year later, by a second former team member, Tyler Hamilton, who had tested positive and been banned for blood doping in 2004. Hamilton, it was claimed, had told the grand jury hearing in the federal criminal inquiry that was launched after Landis's allegations, that he and Armstrong had doped together. Armstrong's denials were vigorous.
The FDA inquiry was dropped, abruptly, in February, but that was not as surprising as it seemed. The only case that could have been brought against Armstrong involved allegations of fraud, but no government agency has managed to make such a charge stick against athletes accused of doping, which is not a criminal offence in America.
But after the criminal investigation closed down, USADA resolved to continue the process. Whether they have used evidence gathered by the FDA is unclear, but the document states 10 cyclists -- who remain anonymous for the present, but can be assumed to include Landis and Hamilton -- have given information.
Armstrong appears to be weighing his options. Robert Luskin, one of his attorneys, said: "He certainly would like to fight it; that's Lance's nature. The question is whether or not the process is going to be sufficiently fair and credible, and give him an opportunity to prove his innocence."
It seems likely that, if he fights, a key line of defence will be that witnesses were coerced into saying Armstrong doped. "We're focused on what we understand to be a corrupt bargain USADA made with other riders and said, essentially: 'Here's the script and, if you co-operate, you get a complete pass. And if you refuse, we'll use Landis and Hamilton against you and you'll never ride again'."
Recent history of major doping cases suggests the 'USPS conspiracy' will not be resolved soon, and may well conclude with an appeal to the Court of Arbitration in Sport.
In one sense, the outcome should be the same whether Armstrong emerges with his reputation as intact as it is now or whether he and his associates are found guilty. It is hard to imagine that the years of controversy will continue beyond the final verdict in the USADA case.
Cycling, finally, should achieve the closure it has long wanted and needed.
Sunday Indo Sport