The Armstrong fallout: Thoughts and theories  //  Questions, denials and doping reactions

27 Aug 2012 Posted by
Friday last week saw Lance Armstrong release a statement that effectively ended his fight against the USADA doping charges, and accept the stripping of his seven Tour de France titles. It was a significant day for the sport, if only because it forces a look back to the era of cycling that was so tainted by drugs that between 1996 and 2006, the sport has not had a single champion untainted by doping. The timeline reads: Riis, Ullrich, Pantani, Armstrong, Landis, and here we sit, seven years later with a big asterisk next to the Tour!

The reaction to the USADA case, and Armstrong’s statement, has however produced huge debate. I’ve refrained from comment here, but have been discussing it at length over on Facebook and Twitter for those interested in the day-to-day thoughts that come up.

But it’s time to address a few of the common questions and positions, hence this post.

The polarized debate

The only thing one can say with certainty about Armstrong’s decision is that he felt that he had no chance of winning an arbitration proceeding before the USADA. That is unquestionably true. The split happens because you can explain this in one of two ways. The first is that he felt he had no chance of winning because the court is rigged, the verdict already decided, and the process unconstitutional. A witch-hunt. This is of course what he has said, through his statement, and the PR campaign that was launched when the USADA case was first announced. In fact, it’s the same message he has been throwing out for years, as Frankie Andreu pointed out with his reaction, saying it sounded like a “broken record”.

The second explanation is that he had no chance of winning because the evidence that USADA had gathered was so convincing, so compelling that he could not explain it away. There would be no brazen denial in the face of perhaps a dozen team-mates all alleging the same thing, plus the testimony of experts and officials who explained how he’d done it. The blood values, possibly financial records, who knows what other evidence they had? Circumstantial perhaps, but there was a mountain of it. And make no mistake, Armstrong would have known what that evidence was – not specifically perhaps, but he’d know if the evidence existed, and would assume that those witnesses for USADA would have some pretty damning accounts, possibly backed with proof.

Your choice between those two options is largely a function of what you want to believe, or what you believed before the statement was even released. If you want to believe the Lance Armstrong story, you’re going for the former – he was just tired.

Let me state, upfront, that I would opt for the second one, that Lance Armstrong doped, and that his decision not to fight the charges is a tactical decision aimed at trying to keep the lid on that evidence, because he knows it’s not worth allowing into the public. For about 13 years, Lance Armstrong has fought the process, and now, for the first time, he faced evidence, and chose not to fight. I interpret his decision not to fight as an admission that he can’t, not that he shouldn’t, and I don’t buy the unconstitutional criticism that he has so cleverly sewn into the discussion (as evidenced by how many are outraged at the USADA case).

The problem is, if you choose to believe Armstrong, that it’s a witch-hunt, then you are also a conspiracy theorist, because the only way you can explain all the witnesses who are willing to testify is to say that they are part of a massive conspiracy against him. One that spans the Atlantic Ocean, includes former team-mates, journalists, doctors, administrators, soigneurs, strangers and mechanics. A few people are “easy” to dismiss – Landis and Hamilton are not credible, that’s easy. But if USADA had ten more lined up, it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss.

The implication of Armstrong’s decision not to fight the charges is that it denies a formal ruling on the matter, and also delays the emergence of the evidence. This was expressed by David Walsh as disappointment, and it was best captured in this excellent piece by Anna Zimmerman, who, by the way, also provided the best coverage of the legal wrangling prior the Armstrong’s statement. She explains how the USADA cases was within its mandate, constitutional and not the ‘witch-hunt’ that people seem so willing to call it (with more than a nudge from clever PR people for Armstrong).

Two other pieces well worth reading on that particular question are Joe Lindsey’s insights here, and this piece on FraudBytes, which I think address the question adequately. The Joe Lindsey piece on Boulder Report is excellent because it explains how the evidence may still emerge, and why it matters.

Oh and if you have a lot of time, then this is a must-read – it’s a four-part rebuttal of the argument that the USADA case is so unconstitutional by someone called “Nerdlinger”.  Even if you just read Parts I to IV, it will take you through every claim and PR strategy that has been employed. Quite brilliant.

Let me now turn my attention to four of the common questions and retorts that seem to have arisen:

1. “Lance passed 500 tests. He must be innocent”

This is straight from the press release, because it’s been Armstrong’s most used retort to the doping question. Two things:

First, there is no way he was tested 500 times. DimSpace has compiled a record of all the possible tests Armstrong may have been subjected to, with over-estimates, and it comes to 236. So there’s more than a little hype in that number that started at 400, then hit 500, and just like that fish your uncle caught on his summer vacation in 1997 grew in size with every story-telling, ended up around the 600 mark.

Nevertheless, 236 is an impressive number to pass, so how is it possible? Well, here’s a list of names – Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Valverde. That’s just six names of athletes who also doped for very long periods without failing a test. Some were caught eventually (Chambers & Montgomery) because a test was developed for a drug called THG based on a tip-off. It then emerged that Chambers had doped for years, with everything, avoiding detection. Ullrich went down because of good old-fashioned investigative work that discovered blood bags in a clinic. Marion Jones was never caught. The reality is that testing is limited, especially when it happens in-competition. That’s why people say that if you fail a drug test in competition, you have failed an IQ test – it’s so simple to manipulate the timing and dosage of your drug use so that you are not tested when you compete.

And remember, the effect of doping lasts long after the drug is gone. You can take EPO, get the benefit, and compete without the drug in the system. Micro-dosing allows you to take the drug very close to the event without it being detectable. In fact, you can dope 12 hours from your race, and as long as you get dosage right, you’ll pass doping controls. The authorities have to be very lucky to test you while you have the drug in your body.

The point is, passing the drug controls is not really all that difficult.

Another point about Armstrong is that his Tour victories spanned a period where the two most common doping methods were not detectable. First, EPO was widely used without being detectable. Once a test was developed for EPO, the practice changed, almost overnight, to blood doping, which was also very difficult to detect. It was only with the introduction of the biological passport that it became possible, because they were looking for the effect of the drug rather than the drug itself. Armstrong did not compete under that kind of scrutiny – his era was one where doping control was almost ‘quaint’ by comparison.

It is no co-incidence that upon his return in 2009, when the biological passport was being used, his values were immediately picked up as borderline suspicious (by Morkeberg, if you fancy a google search). And, part of the USADA case is Armstrong’s blood values which they say are indicative of doping – we are yet to see that evidence. But again, this is a sign of a changing anti-doping landscape, that now catches what 12 years ago was impossible to detect.

So, we should not be too surprised at the fact that he never failed a doping test. One that stuck, anyway – there is the pesky matter of that cortisone positive, and that inconvenient failed EPO test when research testing discovered that his samples were positive from the 1999 Tour (edit: I initially said 2001 – the 2001 samples were those alleged by Landis to have been covered up at the Tour of Switzerland. It was on 1999 that the research testing was done – thanks to those who picked up my mix-up). Here again, Armstrong escaped because doping control had not made the step up to where it is today – today, samples are kept for long periods so that any undetectable drugs can be detected in the future, when the test becomes available. Had this been the case for the Armstrong era, in 2001 specifically, this claim of “never failed a test” would never have existed. As it is, it’s false because of those test failures, but the absence of a B-sample meant it did not stick.

And then there is also the allegation of bribes paid to cover up positive tests – if USADA has evidence in the form of testimony that can be backed up with records or documentation, then this more than answers the “500 test” myth – why beat the tests when you can pay to make them disappear?

Or why worry about beating them when you know when they’re coming? The latest report suggests that sources within the French lab (AFLD) say that Armstrong was routinely informed of when the tests would happen, allowing him ample time to manipulate the sample. The “surprise” element of out-of-competition testing is 90% of their effectiveness, and so if this is the case, then you again get a clearer picture of why those 236 tests failed to discover anything.

Here again, the evidence and testimony will either be believed or dismissed as hearsay. Either way, the “never failed a test in 500” defense is irrelevant because it is a) exaggerated, b) shown up as meaningless by the anti-doping climate of the Armstrong era, c) possibly false anyway.

2. “This is futile. What is the point of doping controls if they don’t catch anyone anyway?”

An extension of the above is the realization that Armstrong was tested many times without failing the convenient test that we have created as a requirement for a doping positive. People take that to mean that anti-doping is useless and irrelevant.

Not so, for a few reasons. First, as I explain above, the anti-doping landscape has evolved, and this is a paradigm shift people need to make. There was a time that we were looking for “smoking guns”. That is, to convict an athlete of doping, we needed a blood or urine sample with the drug in it. It’s the equivalent of needing to catch a thief on camera with his hand in the bank vault or cash register.

That was naive. Those days are long gone. The sophistication of doping has forced a rethink, and there has been a paradigm change which many people are sadly unaware of. The paradigm change really began in the 1980s, when out-of-competition testing was first introduced. Prior to this, athletes were tested only at events, which meant they could dope liberally until just before the event, and still get the benefit without the risk of being caught.

The advent of out-of-competition testing forced performances to drop almost overnight, and was the first illustration that doping control exists to deter doping as much as it does to catch it. Take note of that – doping control is there not only to catch dopers, but to deter them from doping in the first place.

If that is working, then you’ll see two things. Fewer people will dope (“We can’t get away with it”). And, those who do dope will dope less, with smaller doses (“We can still get away with it, but we have to be extra careful”). That is what brings the performance level down, and hopefully ensures that everyone has a realistic shot of competing without doping. I’d go so far as to say that the best we can hope for is that doping control is so tight and difficult to avoid, that doping is squeezed to the point where it makes no significant impact on performance. Even though it happens, it’s ineffective. That would be good enough, in my opinion.

You see this most strikingly in women’s athletics – prior to 1987, there were no out-of-competition tests. Once introduced, performances dropped instantly, and the current record books are dominated by those 1980s performances. The poor female sprinters and power athletes of the current era cannot get close to their event world records, and that’s thanks to better anti-doping control today.

But this doesn’t happen overnight. And in cycling, the 90s and 2000s were affected by a generation of “pharmacological fraud”, because the deterrent value was not high enough. Cyclists doped with EPO and blood doping because they could do so with relative impunity – it wasn’t totally unpoliced, but it was certainly not effective. As I explained above, the tests either did not exist, or were not frequent or powerful enough to catch dopers.

Then came the passport, and the paradigm shift that said “we will look for the effect of the drug, and not its presence”. Now, all of a sudden, it became feasible to catch athletes without finding a banned substance in their body. Lance Armstrong’s Tour wins did not have this obstacle to overcome – nobody did until 2007, and that’s when the deterrent qualities of anti-doping became clear, as I explained in this post – when the EPO test was introduced, it “forced” a shift in behavior that saw blood doping take over as the method of choice. Then the biological passport squeezed doping down to the point that the Tour slowed down. It doesn’t eradicate doping, but it changes the behavior, and that’s what it must do.

This is so valuable because ultimately, the point of doping control is to protect those who do not wish to dope. Those individuals, like Christophe Bassons, who wish to compete without doping, are the purpose of doping control, and so we should not look at catching people as much as deterring them. Catching cheats is only part of it.

So to those who are saying that this current USADA-Armstrong case indicates the futility of the sport, I would ask that they recognize the bigger picture, and the history of doping control. We cannot simply give up because we are not yet 100% perfect. The biological passport is not perfect, and anyone who claims it is wrong. But it’s a step by step process, that has to catch up on years of cheating. There was a time where the dopers were so far ahead that it was a mismatch. The cynics may say it still is, but improved sophistication has narrowed the gap, and that has to keep the momentum going.

The short summary in response to that question is this: “Let’s legalize doping, make it a free for all, and see what happens”. I don’t want that, I don’t know that many do, and so therefore, doping control has a crucial place as a deterrent, to protect the rights of those who do not wish to dope.

3. “If Lance doped, it doesn’t matter – everyone else was doping too, so it was a level playing field”

This is another common defence, and it leads to all kinds of bizarre justifications of Armstrong’s success and why he should be left alone. It’s also frustratingly wrong, for three reasons.

First, remember that doping was illegal, which means that even though everyone may have been doing it, they were doing it with the pressure of a legal system on them. That means that some will have been brazen enough to try more than others. You are not seeing a level playing field because not every athlete is willing to risk as much given that there are penalties for cheating. And while the testing may have been grossly inadequate, as I explained above, it still forced athletes to take risks and spend more money to get away with doping. Therefore, the results of the race were strongly influenced by who was most successful at doing the illegal thing, who wanted to take the most risk, and who had the best systems to help them get away with the illegal action. That in turn is a function of money and power, but nowhere in this does being the best cyclist factor in. And yes, the playing field is never even, but when money, power and an appetite for illegal behavior affect results more than physiology and training, there’s a problem.

Secondly, there is no doubt at all that drugs affect people differently. You and I may take two aspirin for a headache. Mine gets worse, you fall asleep 30 minutes later. Individual differences mean that you cannot assume, even if everyone dopes the same (which they don’t – see previous point), that the race is equal.

And third, it’s irrelevant anyway. I’m baffled by this pseudo-justification of Armstrong’s doping because other guys were doping too. They should be viewed as parallel cases, that have cross-threads linking them (they’re all in the same race, for example), but how does Ullrich’s doping make Armstrong’s or Basso’s any less wrong? Surely the moral compass that is the foundation of all sport requires that everyone obey the rules that they have accepted in the first place?

If every single investment banker on Wall Street was dishonest and committing fraud, does that mean that none are in the wrong? Are Madoff and Stanford less guilty because fraud is widespread? If a student cheats on an exam to get into University, is that condoned as long as he’s not the only one cheating?

Related to this is the idea that Armstrong’s titles should be left alone because those who he beat have also been convicted of doping. As this graphic illustrates, the list of dopers in the Top 10 of the Tour de France is long, and if Armstrong is not the champion, who is? Ullrich, Zulle, Basso, Vinokourov, Rumsas are names on the podium with Armstrong. It would be laughable to take Armstrong’s titles away and award them to a known doper.

But this is not a reason to do something. Perhaps the best action is to either leave the winner of those Tours blank, with the statement “No official winner due to doping controversies”, or keep the names of the winners with a giant asterisk that acknowledges their place as champions of what was actually just a giant pharmacological experiment.

To defend Armstrong on this basis is symptomatic of the mindset that pushed cycling into this situation in the first place – cheating was condoned on the basis that it was a “necessary evil”, “just to keep up”. And believe me, I’m sympathetic to the plight of cyclists who face this decision. David Millar faced it. Jonathan Vaughters faced it, and both have written of the conflict they faced. Not everyone gives in. I dare say I’m grateful I didn’t have to make such a decision, because I don’t know that I would’ve resisted.

That confession out the way, my point is that we know others doped too. Many have been caught. To allow an athlete to get away with it for that reason is just not good enough. If there is a rule, then it must be enforced as many times as is necessary.

4. It’s 13 years too late, why does it matter now?

It matters now for a few reasons. In fact, it’s absolutely crucial now.

First, remember that this was never solely a case against Lance Armstrong. Yes, he’s the biggest name in the case, the media spotlight falls squarely on him, but there were other defendants in what was actually a “conspiracy to dope case”. Johan Bruyneel is the next biggest name, but so too, we care about the doctors, like Michele Ferrari, who oversaw the doping conspiracy. Armstrong may have left the sport, at least as a competitor, but others are still there as doctors, managers, and if cycling is to move beyond its past, those people need to be removed from it.

Secondly, if you adopt the view that says “it’s been 7 years, move on”, then you are effectively saying to the current generation that “as long as you can get away with it for long enough, you can have it forever”. And I appreciate that there is a statute of limitations, and it does seem ridiculous at some point to go back. But given the anti-doping landscape, even from a scientific perspective, if you know that drugs are used today that will only be detectable in ten years, fifteen years, you should recognize that such limitations should not apply.

Is it not a bit ridiculous to change the winner of a sport 12 years after the fact? Yes it is, but that’s still better than never knowing, and never understanding who the true champion is. Valerie Adams was recently awarded the Olympic gold in the women’s shot put after Nadzeya Ostapchuk failed a drug test. Adams was denied her gold medal ceremony. The woman in fourth was denied a ceremony at all. But today, they both know that they are the rightful gold and bronze medalists, respectively. Would you rather have a silver medal with a ceremony, or a gold medal even though your ceremony was denied? I believe that a hard line on doping (which is fraud, after all) should see that dopers are told “If you dope, then it doesn’t matter how long it takes us to figure it out, when we do, you will be sanctioned”.

Take a rider in 2012. If that cyclist knows with certainty that his samples will be stored for years, and if knows that his victories today will be questioned tomorrow based not only on new tests, but on “non-analytical positives” and the accounts of those who know his illegal actions and secrets, I’d like to think it’s a pretty effective deterrent. For all the negative attitudes in the sport, and the bizarre dismissal of anti-doping authorities’ attempts to clean up the sport, those within cycling have to change their behavior when they know that cheating today will be punished, even if “tomorrow” is years away.

A no-compromise attitude to doping is exactly the reason USADA launched the case, and did exactly what they were mandated to do. Aside from the fact that they were pursuing many people still active in the sport, they also represent an honest effort to clean up the sport.

And, on that note, the reaction from within cycling is very worrying. This is the best article I’ve seen written on it.  It’s a little difficult to read at first, because of the deliberate use of what I’ll call “pirate spelling”, but just give it a read and try not to let the spelling affect you (it will grow on your). It makes the point that those in cycling are arguing that Armstrong has little to do with the sport now, and that it should be left alone. That’s not true – Armstrong is still involved, and his legacy pervades the sport, so it must be addressed. Turning blind eyes is, to repeat, what put us here to begin with. Sometimes you have to burn something right down to rebuild it. Another good piece is written by Gerard Vroomen, who also points out the current nature of those so called “ancient history” actions, and calls for an opinion, any opinion.

Such a sad reaction, given that this was cycling’s latest great chance to say “We condemn dopers, and if Armstrong doped, then this is a great day for cycling”. Go further – many of those in the sport KNOW that Armstrong doped, this is the ideal chance to say so, to add to the “image” of a sport that wants to clean itself up.

Yet, that opportunity was missed. We get deafening silence and “no comments”, and I struggle to see what might keep a genuinely clean sport from celebrating the punishment of its greatest fraud. It is truly bizarre, and for all the hope that I have in the better testing, the media pressure, the sponsor pressure to clean up the sport, this kind of continued silence, the ongoing omerta, makes me very despondent.

And don’t even mention the UCI, whose reaction to the USADA case has been nothing short of embarrassing. Whatever happens next, whether it is the slow emergence of the evidence in the USADA case (which I do want to see more of), or the arbitration of Bruyneel, I hope that more information emerges on how the UCI might have been complicit in the Armstrong era. Their bizarre, muddled response betrayed an organization at sea, and maybe their involvement in this will be exposed, making that the best possible result of the investigation.

Regardless, I don’t see the issue going away. It may be over for Armstrong according to his statement, but with the possibility that SCA and the Sunday Times are looking at legal action, and the slow trickle of new information, I’m sure the mountain of testimonies will only grow.

Once again, that either means you’re going to have an even bigger conspiracy against Armstrong to blame, or you’ll have more proof than ever that it was, to quote Betsy Andreu, perhaps one of the very first whistleblowers in this case, “this was arguably the biggest fraud in the history of sport. Bernie Madoff would be proud. Maybe even jealous

And, cue opinions! (and the “stick to science” bat!)

Ross