Is cycling ready to clean up its act?
As the US Anti-Doping Agency prepares to present its case against seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, the sport faces a crucial test of its credibility.
Sporting stars don’t come much bigger, or fall much harder, than Lance Armstrong, or, it would seem, much slower.
It was in late June, on the eve of the 2012 Tour de France, that the US Anti-Doping Agency announced that it was charging the record seven-time Tour winner with doping offences. Armstrong was given until August 24 to respond. When he refused to do so, USADA banned him for life and said he would be stripped of all results from August 1, 1998, including his seven Tour titles.
But that wasn’t the end of it. It was more like the beginning. With Armstrong’s refusal to answer the doping charges, thereby avoiding a public hearing, the agency is now required to explain its decision to three parties: the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the International Cycling Union (UCI), and Armstrong.
The file is expected at the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, on October 14. And although it is believed that the explanation includes detailed evidence of systematic doping by Armstrong and his US Postal Service team, backed up by testimony from over ten witnesses, it is possible that the UCI could appeal the USADA ruling, not least because it could find itself implicated in the case against Armstrong.
It could therefore end up in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which means, on the basis of previous cases, including Alberto Contador’s appeal against his positive drugs test at the 2010 Tour, finally settled in February this year, that it could run for years.
Yet the most surprising aspect in it all is not that Armstrong teeters, like a sporting Goliath, on the brink of falling. It is that those wielding the axe are not European, but American.
During his seven year-run as Tour champion, Armstrong thrived on enmity. Sporting rivals were routinely traduced and transformed into hated enemies, but arguably his longest-running battle was with France itself.
The relationship soured in 2000, after Armstrong’s second win, though it perhaps had its roots in his sacking by a French team, Cofidis, while he was being treated for cancer. But during the 2000 Tour a French TV station followed staff from the US Postal Service team and filmed them dumping used syringes, bloody compresses and a drug extracted from calf blood, Actovegin. When the footage was broadcast, the French authorities launched an investigation, which was eventually dismissed.
Armstrong was furious. He lived in Nice at the time, but France, according to his former teammate, Tyler Hamilton, became “f***ing France,” and Armstrong promptly moved his European base to Girona, Spain.
As the suspicion around Armstrong grew over the following years, the division hardened. While increasing numbers of Americans flocked to the Tour every summer to support a man rapidly becoming an icon or sporting deity, any scepticism around his performances was seen as a European phenomenon, fuelled by bitterness and jealousy. Some went so far as to suggest that suspicion towards Armstrong amounted to a French conspiracy, coinciding with, or linked to, anti-US feeling over the Iraq war.
A more relevant context to the scepticism was a phenomenon known as cyclisme a deux vitesses: cycling at two speeds. After the 1998 doping scandal involving France’s top team, Festina, which saw police raids and arrests at the Tour, French teams were forced to clean up their act. Their performances suffered. By the early 2000s, according to some, the peloton was travelling at two different speeds: those still doping were at the front; those who were not were at the back, or left behind.
When Armstrong retired in 2005, after a record seventh consecutive Tour victory, Marc Madiot, the manager of the Francaise des Jeux team, spoke of “the end of the myth,” and asserted that, “History will show cycling at two speeds.” Less than a month later, the headline on the front page of L’Equipe, the French sports daily, read: ‘The Armstrong Lie.’ The paper claimed that, in retrospective testing, six of Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour contained the banned blood booster, EPO.
“Yet again a European newspaper has reported that I have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs,” responded Armstrong. “Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues and the article is nothing short of tabloid journalism”
It is ironic that, in the end, Armstrong could be brought down by an American organization, which he has also accused of a “witch hunt”. Another irony is that, despite a popular view that the suspicion that stalked Armstrong in Europe owed to jealousy and resentment, arguably the most serious allegations in the USADA file concern the UCI, which has been accused of colluding with Armstrong to cover up a positive test for EPO at the 2001 Tour of Switzerland.
By then, Armstrong had tested positive for cortisone at the 1999 Tour, after winning the first stage, but he was cleared when a therapeutic-use exemption prescription was produced afterwards, despite the rules stating that TUEs, as they are known, must be submitted in advance. The suspicion now is that this event set a pattern; that Armstrong’s story, his return from cancer, his vital importance to an event that had been so badly damaged 12 months earlier, was too irresistible, too compelling, to destroy for the sake of a piece of paper.
When USADA announced its intention to strip Armstrong of his titles – this time prompting a knowing L’Equipe headline: ‘The fall of the boss’ – Bernard Hinault, the five-time Tour winner, acknowledged: “It’s a problem that should have been resolved 10 or 15 years ago and it wasn’t.”
He may have been talking of Armstrong in particular, or the sport in general, but he should know. Hinault, the last French winner of the Tour, in 1985, now works for ASO, the Tour organisers.