The news that former Tour de France champion Floyd Landis has admitted using several performance-enhancing drugs in his cycling career, reported in The Wall Street Journal, is disappointing on several levels.
First, it invalidates one of the great performances in sports, Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France. Landis had lost his overall lead with a weak ride the day before, falling from first to 11th overall. He then stormed out to a solo breakaway that you never see from a contender in one of the great Tours. Riders who have fallen far back in the general classification may pull off a breakaway at times, but if someone of Landis’ caliber breaks free, the pack responds. The pack did indeed respond, but Landis was just that strong.
(Landis tells ESPN’s Bonnie Ford that the testosterone test that flagged him after that race is still inaccurate, but he admits he using human growth hormone.)
Second, it raises more doubt on cycling’s protracted clean-up efforts and, once again, on Lance Armstrong. Landis implicates much of American cycling’s pantheon — Armstrong, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and David Zabriskie — though he concedes to Ford that he has no documentation.
Third, it makes us wonder if anti-doping efforts are helping at all. Any gloating from anti-doping activists — especially from Dick Pound, whose irresponsible comments about “violating virgins” in the early days of the Landis case showed a nasty tendency to talk first, gather facts later — would be misguided.
If there’s even a grain of truth in the e-mails Landis has sent to cycling and anti-doping authorities, then the tests are missing the mark. He tells Ford he is showing authorities how athletes are still cheating and beating the tests.
And yet, the test that flagged down Landis is still questionable. The site Trust But Verify meticulously cataloged problems with Landis’ case, and nothing Landis says here disputes any of that analysis. Arbitrator Chris Campbell ripped the French lab that handled the results in voting to dismiss Landis’ case, and the two arbitrators who overruled him conceded that mistakes had been made. Even if Landis were indeed using synthetic testosterone at that time, which he still denies, better handling of the case would’ve led to a much cleaner and quicker resolution.
Anti-doping science is difficult and ever-changing. Just ask Zach Lund, who missed the Torino Olympics over an anti-baldness drug that was later removed from the banned list. The tests are complicated, and athletes are finding ways to beat them.
And that’s why the anti-doping movement must always proceed out of humility rather than arrogance. Especially today.
Update: Christine Brennan sums up anti-doping challenges in reference to the case of Canadian doctor Anthony Galea, who paid house calls to Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez, with some telling quotes from someone who understands those challenges better than anyone — Gary Wadler.