Where do we go from here?
It is my firm belief that Lance Armstrong won his 7 Tours de France whilst doping.
To counter this by saying, ” but he’s never tested positive” is to assume that cycling’s doping controls are absolute and will always catch the bad guys eventually. This didn’t happen with Jan Ulrich or the countless others who were caught out in Operation Puerto in 2006. Britain’s golden boy David Millar never tested positive, yet in 2004 police raided his room in Biaritz and found used syringes and two empty phials of EPO.
Basically, I could write a lengthy blogpost on why I think Armstrong doped, but I’d like to assume that every reasonable person, unburdened by the trappings of fandom, can look at the facts dispassionately and come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to believe he did it clean, however good a story it would make. There’s the testimonys from former teammates where doping regimes are described in detail, there’s his association with the controversial Michele Ferrari (which, according to Italian police, continued in secret until at least 2010 after Ferrari’s arrest in 2004), and then, of course, there’s the context. The rivals who were snarled at, crushed and firmly put in their place were all using EPO and transfusing blood, Armstrong rode and dominated in cycling’s dirtiest era and we are asked to believe his success was a result of talent and mental strength winning out over pharmaceutically enhanced opponents.
Those who hoped that the federal investigation launched into Armstrong and doping in US cycling would come up with charges and, ultimately, convictions were hopefully not all crossing their fingers out of bitterness or a bloody-minded vindictive desire to see a hero fall.
Instead, we wanted the truth to come out. Cycling cannot progress if its future is built on fairytales. We need to go back and honestly address what went wrong, why riders doped, who knew what and how it can be stopped in the future. The alternative to this, as far as I can see, is to shout loud about the guys who get caught out and bring the full force of scorn and indignation down on their shoulders. Sometimes these guys end up like Floyd Landis, where a confession relieves them of their burden, other times they end up like Marco Pantani. The common factor between the two is that they are suddenly ostracised and disowned by a sport and culture that nurtured them, taught them to act this way by institutionalising the act of doping, and then threw them to the wolves.
In Floyd Landis’s opinion, only a total amnesty can save cycling now. Ask riders to reveal how they dope, how they avoid testing positive and in return offer immunity from punishment. Understand a little more, condemn a little less, in other words. The sport needs to understand its problems before it can confront them fully. Landis has helped with this and he should be applauded for eventually doing the right thing, but the sport should make provisions for others to follow his lead, not brief the press that those who break cycling’s great omerta are liars or psychologically unbalanced.
To talk about this in abstract terms is fine, but the huge barrier standing in the way is cycling’s survival as a commercial entity. If it stops one day and says ‘actually, all this is a lie and we cannot say for sure that any of these athletes are clean’ the money would run out overnight. Which sponsor wants to have their name on the jersey of a cheat? Who wants their brand to be associated with lies and corruption? Where would the funding come from?
This is why cycling seemingly must carry on as it is, and why there will be huge sighs of relief in the offices of the UCI at the news no charges will be brought against the man who rejuvinated the sport after the Festina scandal in 1998, when pundits where openly questioning whether the Tour de France could survive. Cycling enjoyed some glorious commercial success in the years from 1999-2005, even if the racing itself was stolid and largely unexciting, the buccaneering daring of the Hinault, Lemond and Fignon era replaced by the machinelike, regimented performances of Armstrong’s US Postal team, leading from the front and grinding down opponents into submission. To admit that this commercial renaissance was built on a lie would leave the governing body, and many others, open to numerous awkward questions they’d presumably all rather leave in the past.
There are certain n0-go areas in cycling, and Armstrong is definitely one of them. For that reason I can’t answer the question I’ve laid out in the title to this blogpost. I hope that the US Anti-Doping Agency, as they have pledged, carry out a thorough probe into doping practises and receive all the evidence which now won’t be used in the federal investigation. I hope they build their investigation on finding out the truth, no matter what, rather than a damage limitations exercise with one eye on keeping the golden goose laying eggs just a little bit longer.
I hope the truth comes out eventually because I want to believe in cycling a bit more. And, I think possibly more than that, I want the courage of Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton who did a lot of disgraceful things and told a lot of lies but eventually spoke out against a culture of denial, to count for something. I don’t want the PR machine to spin into overdrive and declare that Armstrong has been found not guilty and that Landis and Hamilton have been proved to have been lying, because no such thing has happened, no trial has taken place.
Cheating is probably more commonplace than we’d like to believe and once something has been set in motion its hard to stop. I’m not even sure doping can be seen in such absolute terms as a matter of right and wrong. Christophe Bassons found being ‘right’ was hard, as he was mocked by his teammates for refusing to take the doping products which they all used. If you want to succeed in the sport, you’re probably going to need to do more than ride clean and hope for a break, particularly in an event that spans three weeks. And isn’t that what sport is about anyway? Finding a way to succeed. That’s not a justification of doping, it’s just a question. But it’s a question that needs to be answered, along with a lot of others, if cycling is to lay its demons to rest for once and for all.