Will USADA’s Doping Investigation Prove Lance Armstrong’s Guilt or Exonerate Him Once and for All?

The stadium scene.
June 14 2012 8:44 PM

Lance’s Last Stand

Will the latest doping investigation prove Lance Armstrong’s guilt or exonerate him once and for all?

Lance Armstrong at the 2005 Tour de France
Lance Armstrong at the 2005 Tour de France in Paris, France. Armstrong is under investigation of doping by the USADA.

Photograph by Robert Laberge/Getty Images.

Are you tired of Lance Armstrong doping allegations? He hopes so. Even cable news has Armstrong fatigue. After reporting on the 15-page charging letter by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that accuses Armstrong and five colleagues of building a systematic doping program, CNN’s Kate Bolduan said, “definitely not the end of that one.”

But at least there’s an end in sight. For the first time, the intractable debate over whether cycling’s biggest star used performance-enhancing drugs will be adjudicated in an official forum. Armstrong has 10 days to respond to USADA’s letter, after which a review board will decide whether to impose sanctions. USADA, a partnership between the U.S. government and the United States Olympic Committee, is not empowered to charge Armstrong criminally. The drug-testing body, though, could potentially strip the seven-time Tour de France winner of his titles. It could also enforce a lifetime ban from competition, which could end the cycling champion’s quest to win the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii this October. (As a consequence of the charges, he has been immediately barred from competing in triathlons.)

Armstrong, who is now represented by Karl Rove’s former lawyer Bob Luskin, has gone on the offensive. In a statement released on his website, he says, “Although USADA alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy extended over more than 16 years, I am the only athlete it has chosen to charge. ... I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one. That USADA ignores this fundamental distinction and charges me instead of the admitted dopers says far more about USADA, its lack of fairness and this vendetta than it does about my guilt or innocence.”

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On the surface, it may seem that Armstrong is making a plausible argument. In February, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles closed its two-year investigation into Armstrong and doping without bringing any charges. Now, just four months later, a different body has piled on in an attempt to take away his yellow jerseys.

Though this may seem like an unfair vendetta, going after Armstrong is the only fair thing for USADA to do. The agency is mandated to investigate positive drug tests and credible doping allegations. In its charging letter, USADA says “more than 10 cyclists as well as cycling team employees” provided testimony. (Armstrong was invited, but declined to speak.) “Multiple riders with first hand knowledge will testify that between 1998 and 2005 Armstrong personally used EPO [erythropoietin] and on multiple occasions distributed EPO to other riders,” the agency says. Moreover, there is no presumption of innocence as there is in a criminal proceeding; in doping cases the burden of proof is on the athlete. That may be why Armstrong hashtagged his tweet on the subject “#unconstitutional.”

But the Constitution does not guarantee the right to compete in professional sports. And in January 2011, Armstrong claimed that he welcomed the USADA investigation: “I look forward to being vindicated,” he said. The fact that the feds dropped the case earlier this year did not equal vindication, he told Men’s Journal in a recent interview. “In order to beat them you’d have to go through a trial and there would have to be a verdict,” he said. Now, at last, he has the chance to prove his innocence.

The bulk of Armstrong’s career—the years between the early 1990s and his 2005 retirement—coincided with a golden age for doping in the sport, at a level not seen outside the Eastern Bloc circa the 1980s. Riders began using the red-blood-cell booster erythropoietin in the early 1990s. When a test for EPO was introduced at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, they switched to blood transfusions, a time-honored (and banned) practice dating back decades. Major scandals, including the massive Operation Puerto affair in Spain, not to mention Floyd Landis losing his 2006 Tour de France title, took out many of the top contenders of his day. Armstrong’s contention that he’s being singled out is the exact opposite of the truth: Thus far, Lance is one of the few top riders from cycling’s doping era to remain unscathed.

The singled-out claim also doesn’t consider that USADA has charged key Armstrong staffers, from doctors to his longtime personal trainer Michele Ferrari (whom I profiled for Bicycling in 2006) to his team director and confidante, Johan Bruyneel. Doping in cycling is, or was, a structural problem, handed down from generation to generation and (on some teams) enforced by team management. If USADA’s charges are true, that certainly seems to have been the case on Armstrong’s cycling teams.

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