Lance Armstrong’s gambit: Tour de France titles, prosecution and history

Bobby Fischer never gave up his world chess championship. In his mind and in perhaps the minds of a handful of people, he was still the champion.

Lance Armstrong isn’t quite as delusional as Bobby Fischer was. But like Fischer at the chessboard, he’s trying a shrewd gambit: Armstrong believes he has a better shot at casting reasonable doubt on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case against him outside the arbitration process than within it.

That’s not necessarily true. But it’s not a wild idea.

Armstrong will have more supporters than Fischer had. Alberto Contador had kind words. The International Cycling Union remains skeptical of USADA’s jurisdiction. Overseas at the Telegraph, many writers and readers sympathize with Armstrong.

Even the judge who ruled against Armstrong’s challenge of USADA’s jurisdiction took issue with USADA’s claims — see page 17 of his ruling. (Page 18 had one of the more ominous footnotes I’ve seen in legal documents: “If it should come to pass that Armstrong does not actually receive adequate notice sufficiently in advance of the arbitration hearing, and it is brought to this Court’s attention in the appropriate manner, USADA is unlikely to appreciate the result.” Page 28 refers to “troubling aspects of this case,” and page 29 calls USADA’s conduct thus far “mystifying.”)

That leaves two questions. The first: Did he do it? The second: Does it matter?

Internet commenters always think they know the answer to the first. They say Armstrong passed every test. And he did. But so did Marion Jones, before she admitted — in the face of considerable evidence — to using a designer steroid carefully constructed to pass tests.

It’s not to fair to say Armstrong is just like Jones. Every doping case is different. Swimmer Jessica Hardy had a particularly murky case. LaShawn Merritt had an embarrassing but convincing defense. Floyd Landis had a good, detailed case against his doping accusations, and then he confessed to all sorts of other performance enhancements that weren’t caught.

That brings us back to the cycling world — which, it’s fair to say, has had a drug problem in the past. If Armstrong was doping, even to the extent alleged by USADA, it’s not a case of a bunch of East German swimmers systematically doping their way to victory over athletes with no evidence of wrongdoing. Jan Ullrich and Andreas Kloden, who could theoretically be named Tour champions in hindsight, have had their own issues.

And so this Cycling News reaction roundup leads with this:

(Thankfully, Cycling News translates: “By deleting Lance, the list of winners doesn’t become more credible.”)

From a bookkeeping point of view, naming Tour de France winners in retrospect is impossible. No doping agency is going to go back through each cyclist’s history and make sure he was clean the year he might have finished on the podium.

And Armstrong knows the arbitrators and USADA, ultimately, can only affect the bookkeeping. What they learn from Armstrong’s case is ultimately more important going forward — what can they learn for future doping cases to ensure cycling in the 2010s is cleaner than cycling in the 1990s?

And so Armstrong is gambling that his reputation will survive the bookkeepers’ red pen. Given the good will he has built up through his advocacy for cycling and cancer, plus the uncertainty of any 8-year-old Tour de France records, that’s not a bad bet.

Bobby Fischer’s gambits in real life were rash and doomed to failure. Bobby Fischer’s gambits at the chessboard were meticulously analyzed and usually successful. Armstrong’s gambit is a lot closer to Fischer at the chessboard than Fischer in real life.

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