It isn’t hard to remember where you were when you heard the news that a stanozolol-fuelled Ben Johnson had been stripped of his 100 metres gold medal at the 1988 Olympics. The world collectively stopped what it was doing and reached for its breath. With subsequent evidence revealing that a high proportion of Johnson’s contemporaries also cheated to boost their performances, it took almost 20 years and the emergence of Usain Bolt for sprinting to recover its reputation. Shockwaves were felt across the globe and at the time it was almost beyond comprehension that one day there would be a more widely felt stain on the ancient sporting values of fair play and competition. And then, 24 years later, on 10 October this year, the sky fell in on a scale that trumped that day in Seoul.
The fallout from the United States Anti Doping Agency’s (USADA) 1000-page report, which stated that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong’s US Postal Team ‘ran the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen’, was still unfolding on a daily basis at the time of writing. Where it all ends will not be known for many months but the momentum it has built up and the collateral damage it’s leaving in its wake has all the devastation and destruction of an avalanche.
The Purging of a Pariah
USADA ’s evidence suggested that, rather than being a cog in the overall machinations of the disgraced US Postal team, Armstrong was the man turning the wheels. Allegations of the team coercing junior members into taking performance-enhancing drugs left a sinister aftertaste. That, and the aggressive lengths that Armstrong allegedly went to in covering it up, paints a picture of a man who employed fear as a weapon in his ultimately ill-fated battle to preserve a reputation built as much in a laboratory as it was on the road.
The final nail in the coffin for Armstrong came on 22 October, when cycling’s governing body the UCI upheld USADA’s findings. UCI president Pat McQuaid agreed that Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles should be removed from the history books with immediate effect and stated that USADA ’s lifetime ban for the Texan was fully endorsed by the UCI. Armstrong “has no place in cycling” said McQuaid. When asked how the American should be remembered, McQuaid simply stated that Armstrong should be forgotten by the sport and by its followers.
The language used could hardly have been more unequivocal, and McQuaid’s tone of voice contained all the finality of an executioner. It was a stunning change of tack for a governing body that for the past couple of decades has been accused of indecisiveness, temerity and, in some quarters, downright complicity with those who have engaged in sport’s darkest arts by illegally pumping their bodies full of banned performance-enhancing drugs in order to gain an unfair advantage over their rivals.
“It’s not a surprise that an outside body like USADA took the initiative in this,” says cycling journalist Daniel Friebe, author of a recent biography of Eddy Merckx, The Cannibal. “For years people have made vague allegations that the UCI is corrupt. The least you can say is that they weren’t particularly attentive when Armstrong was at the top.
“In the last couple of decades they have shown little interest in investigating the past. It’s been a book or a police investigation that has been the catalyst.”
Armstrong has never failed a dope test and the results of USADA’s far-reaching investigation could not prove that he had. Yet the sophisticated doping programme undertaken by him and his US Postal team was designed to mask their crimes from the testers. Eleven of his former teammates testified that they had doped alongside Armstrong over a long period of time. Of those already retired it is Tyler Hamilton who has been the most vocal in his condemnation of his own actions and those of Armstrong.
His recently released book, The Secret Race, is one of the most jaw-dropping sporting exposés of recent years. One of its passages tells the story of Hamilton borrowing some EPO from a fridge in Armstrong’s home as if it was simply a pint of milk.
Armstrong’s dwindling band of supporters have labelled Hamilton as an opportunist. His book has rocketed to the top of numerous best-seller lists across the world but the bare facts show that Hamilton testified against Armstrong under oath. The notion that Hamilton and the other cyclists cited by USADA would be prepared to commit perjury – and in the process ruin their own reputations – solely out of hatred for Armstrong is preposterous.
Loss of Faith
In the aftermath of the USADA report, new revelations and ramifications surfaced on an almost daily basis: receipts were printed that showed over $1 million being paid by Armstrong into the bank account of the disgraced doctor Michele Ferrari, a man who once talked about EPO and orange juice in the same breath; Armstrong’s $125,000 donation to the UCI has been looked upon with fresh suspicion; all of Armstrong’s major long-term sponsors, such as Nike, Oakley and Trek, dropped him; Armstrong stepped down from his role as chairman of Livestrong, the charitable cancer foundation that he set up after defeating the disease; and Rabobank – the longest standing headline sponsor of a ProTour team – announced it was withdrawing from cycling because of the damage that a continued association with the sport could do to its brand.
So aside from dragging cycling onto the front pages for the wrong reasons and diminishing its reputation, what does all of this mean for the future of the sport? Can we still have faith in cycling? And if the answer is no, how can it rebuild our trust in these darkest of times?
The general consensus has been that the UCI has been culpable in failing to police the sport and not flushing out the cheats over a number of years. One startling figure, once you include Armstrong into the equation, is that 17 of the 33 winners of the Tour de France since 1980 have either tested positive or admitted to doping. The weight of that statistic suggests that the sport is rotten to its core. So will it now use this mess to get its house in order?
Taken at face value, McQuaid’s public utterances as he confirmed the UCI sanctions did appear to be intended as an ushering in of a period of healing. When he spoke of cycling having to tackle “the biggest crisis it’s ever faced”, he predicted that the scandal could be a landmark in the future of the sport. “I like to look at this crisis as an opportunity for our sport and everyone involved in it to realise it is in danger and to work together to go forward,” he said.
But amid his passionate defence of the sport, the hyperbolic vehemence of his finger pointing and the promises of a new dawn, there were holes. Aside from the lack of responsibility taken, McQuaid floundered on the question of Armstrong’s $125,000 donation. He said that the UCI should have handled those donations differently and implied that accepting them was a mistake. But he later said that the UCI would not rule out accepting rider donations in the future.
“In terms of the image of the sport itself, [convicted doper] Floyd Landis famously said to [journalist and former cyclist] Paul Kimmage that if he’d had any confidence in the UCI one day cleaning up the cycling he’d have never taken drugs,” says Friebe.
“Nobody has any real confidence that the sport will ever totally rid itself of doping. Though it’s true that the culture nowadays is far healthier than it was a decade ago.”
McQuaid has stated that the drug testing procedures the UCI has at its disposal are far more advanced than they were 10 years ago. Despite the high profile cases in 2012 involving Alberto Contador and Frank Schleck, there do seem to be winds of change blowing through the sport.
But whether or not a new start can be achieved while some of those who oversaw and took part in the sport’s nadir are still in positions of authority is a key question. Should the UCI start again from scratch in terms of its key employees? Should there be lifetime bans for everyone – riders, coaches, staff, doctors, administrators – involved in those lost years? There is clearly much to ponder.
“As soon as doping is mentioned there’s a moral threshold that people cross,” says Friebe. “It becomes a deeply moralistic issue. Other forms of cheating in sport don’t have the same stigma attached to them, such as diving in football. The same goes for holding on to cars in road racing. That’s rife, and arguably has a bigger effect on the results of stage races if a rider holds onto a car and then wins a sprint the next day.
“You can’t even explain it away by arguing that people’s health is at stake. It’s their choice, their body. So there’s a wider issue – why do we feel the way we do about doping? If the punishment for a first offence was a three-month ban rather than two years would people feel as strongly about it? Are the lawmakers imposing their own views on us?”
Perhaps it’s time that those lawmakers take into account the views of the fans – intelligent, passionate people who are the lifeblood of the sport and have been for a century. They have loyally suffered through many doping scandals and have been consistently ignored. It’s time for their opinions to be listened to.
This feature originally appeared in Cycling Plus Magazine
© Future Publishing/Mark Robinson 2013