Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, purgatory and peace

The word “Tour” appears only six times (not counting the tour of his art collection) in this lengthy piece on Lance Armstrong: Lance in Purgatory: The After-Life – Esquire. The word “France” appears only once. It’s as if we no longer associate the man with his rise. Only his fall.

The Tour is back on TV this week, and though it’s starting in England, it’s the same old Tour. It’s live shots of the peloton clawing back to catch the little-known riders in the day’s heroic but ultimately doomed breakaway. It’s Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen chatting about castle architecture and William the Conquerer as the helicopter cameras show us some impossibly beautiful scene from the countryside.

Perhaps the Tour is the ultimate Buzzfeed personality test. Do you see the Tour as an utter fraud, a spectacle that masks the generations of cheating in the sport? Or do you see it as an exercise in persistence?

The Esquire story attempts to balance Armstrong’s good and bad. He still records video messages for cancer patients, and it emerges in the course of the reporting that Livestrong may want him back despite the blistering email he sent upon his resignation. He lives comfortably — for now. He has more days in court ahead. But he tries to live in the present with his golf buddies and his kids.

We know quite well that Armstrong wasn’t the only doper in the peloton all those years. More than half the winners of the past 50 years and the overwhelming majority of top 10 finishers in the Armstrong years have been caught. Do the others share Armstrong’s pariah status? How do they live today?

France has, of course, seen history far worse than a bunch of EPO-ravaged cyclists climbing its mountains. We’re now marking the 100th anniversary of the war that should have shocked the world into never taking up arms again. The Tour passes gentle fields that were once bloody. Villages that have somehow managed to patch themselves up.

So when we look at the Tour and the beautiful towns, castles and streams, do we think of the history? Does that history make the bustling and tranquil settings seem fraudulent? Or do we see peace and perseverance? Maybe even forgiveness?

Advertisement

Lance Armstrong and the truth-tellers … well, sort of

The NYT has a curious piece hailing the independent media as the sole source of truth in the years before Lance Armstrong was buried under 1,000 pages of U.S. Anti-Doping Agency evidence.

Nice shoutout to NYVelocity.com, home of the ever-classic Tour day Schmalz, but it’s a little unfair to split the cycling media into “brave, truth-telling, low-profile underdogs” and “those who were unwilling or simply scared to tell the truth.” (Or even worse, “enablers.”)

The issue: For journalists to print doping allegations, they have to have something called “evidence.”

The main reason we wait for evidence: It’s simply ethical to do so. The other reason is one I supposed you could file under “scared,” but legitimately so: Lance Armstrong wasn’t just suing his critics over the years. He was winning.

Satire, such as NYVelocity’s inside joke-heavy “Toto” cartoons, has broader protection. And in a lot of cases, satire is better able to tell the truth than the “media.” Just go back a couple of years to the classic Onion story “Lance Armstrong Wants To Tell Nation Something But Nation Has To Promise Not To Get Mad.”

Sure, a few people pursued the Armstrong case when it wasn’t cool to do so. A lot of people in the cycling community owe Betsy Andreu an apology. But “enablers”? That’s a little harsh. And unfair.

Lance Armstrong’s legacy falling like Berlin Wall

At what point does Lance Armstrong go from a being an inspirational figure to a sympathetic one?

Six months ago, Armstrong was comfortably in the USA’s firmament of sports heroes. He had parlayed his Tour de France championships and triumph over cancer into an assortment of lucrative business deals and a reputation as one of the country’s leading cancer-fighters. Of the people whose names are synonymous with cancer organizations — Susan Komen, Jim Valvano — he’s the one who’s still with us, ready to speak about his experience.

Sure, he had critics. But they were mostly shouted down, scorned or sometimes silenced in court.

Then the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said it was checking into Armstrong’s past. And Armstrong scoffed, confident that his business partners and the sports community as a whole would stick with him. After losing a round in court, he wiped his hands and figured he didn’t even need to fight the case against him. Maybe he couldn’t? No one knew for sure.

When USADA released its colossal evidence against Armstrong, he shrugged it off again. Great times coming up at Livestrong, he reminded everyone on Twitter.

Aside from the media reaction, nothing tangible happened at first. Then, everything fell. It was like everyone in East Berlin suddenly realizing that the guards were no longer at the Berlin Wall. The official bulwarks — in Armstrong’s case, Livestrong and his many commercial partners — fell away. And journalists, many of whom had suspicions for years but no proof, felt free at last to heap scorn upon Armstrong.

Today, Lance Armstrong is officially the seven-time Tour champion no longer, stripped by international cycling authorities who seem to believe every bit of evidence except the bits that implicate them as well. Given the depth of doping scandals within cycling over Armstrong’s decade of wins, many titles will simply sit vacant. There’s no point in “promoting” anyone to the Tour title when the other cyclists either had doping issues of their own or were never put under the same scrutiny to which USADA put Armstrong.

And Armstrong has lost the last of his endorsement deals. A few days ago, he had tens of millions in future earnings. Today, that’s all gone.

Other people and organizations are feeling the ripple effect. In the D.C. area, some people want to hear from Post columnist Sally Jenkins, Armstrong’s co-author and staunch defender a few short weeks ago. Former Armstrong teammate Levi Leipheimer will be telling his story in a documentary and panel discussion. And will we ever see the lovely Tour de France the same way?

But at the heart of it all is a giant now toppled. Just 12 days ago, he said he was “unaffected.” How different he must feel today.

Livestrong’s legacy and Lance Armstrong

A thoughtful espnW roundtable on Lance Armstrong raised a good question: How valuable is Livestrong, anyway?

(One question needs to be addressed: One participant says people might see Livestrong Park and wonder where the funds are going. But unless the reporting is wrong, the funds are going to other way.)

The roundtable links to this Outside magazine story from earlier in the year that questioned a lot of Livestrong’s practices, from its strong-arm approach to the media to the nebulous emphasis on “awareness.” The latter is turning into a hot topic in cancer charities these days — is it time to put away the ribbons and pick up some lab microscopes?

But the Outside piece, while occasionally blunt, is fair. It doesn’t shy away from the good that Livestrong has done.

The more official watchdogs — Charity Navigator, Charity Watch and the Better Business Bureau — give Livestrong good grades.

Then you get to the intangibles. How many people were inspired by Armstrong’s recovery? How many people found hope through Livestrong?

Time will tell if any of those intangibles translate to numbers.

Lance Armstrong case: Random things you should know

Questions and answers about the massive Lance Armstrong case file the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released yesterday:

1. Is the case over?

Technically, no. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) says the International Cycling Federation has 21 days to consider case, and then WADA has 21 more. See Article 13.2.3 of the World Anti-Doping Code.

WADA can sometimes take a different approach than USADA. See the sad case of skeleton slider Zach Lund, in which USADA gave a warning but WADA took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and got Lund kicked out of the 2006 Olympics.

But the point here is clearly reputation, not whether Armstrong is somehow able to overturn a ban when it’s clear he’s not going to contest it himself.

2. What’s the typical process for a doping case?

Positive test, “B” sample test, then a hearing. If an athlete is punished, he or she can take it to arbitrators — first within the country in question, then the international Court of Arbitration for Sport. USADA’s FAQ (“Adjudication Process”) explains it more clearly than the World Anti-Doping Code.

3. How can someone be banned without a documented test failure?

Ah, back to my old USA TODAY timeline of the BALCO case. How many hours did I devote to this page over the years?

Anyway — in May 2004, sprinter Kelli White became the first athlete with a “non-analytical positive” suspension. That’s a fancy way of saying “punished without a positive test.” White accepted her suspension. Later in 2004, Michelle Collins went through the arbitration process to challenge her “non-analytical positive.” She lost.

(For eerie foreshadowing, note June 16,2004. Marion Jones says she won’t participate in USADA’s “kangaroo court.” Seems we’ve heard similar things recently.)

4. Why now?

This wasn’t a typical USADA case triggered by a positive test, nor was there an anonymous whistle-blower as in many of the BALCO cases. USADA dates its interest in the case back to November 2008, when it had a hearing with accused cyclist Kayle Leogrande (no, I hadn’t heard of him, either). That led to some broader questions about cycling, which led to a common thread with Floyd Landis, the former 2006 Tour de France champion. Landis had fought a doping case from the Tour de France (USADA was not involved with that case, which was in the hands of French authorities) but was now in a mood to be forthcoming. (p. 10)

But USADA heard of a grand jury investigation into the U.S. Postal Service team, which included Landis … and Lance Armstrong. USADA backed off to let federal authorities do their thing. (p. 11)

That investigation ended in February, and USADA stepped up. Interviews took place through the spring. On June 12, USADA told Armstrong et al it was opening a formal action.

That notification was confidential, as are most doping cases until a result is announced — at least from USADA’s perspective. But athletes sometimes go public, and Armstrong did. Then Armstrong sued, essentially claiming USADA didn’t have jurisdiction. Honestly, USADA isn’t going to lose a case like that, and though the judge shook his head at some of USADA’s filings, he concluded that the arbitration process was reasonable.

(Note that three others, including longtime team director Johan Bruyneel, have gone to arbitration as per any other standard case.)

5. Back up to the federal investigation — how much of the USADA evidence is from that investigation?

USADA says it asked but didn’t get any. (p. 3)

6. How many riders were clean during Armstrong’s tenure as Tour de France champion?

Not many. USADA counted 36 doping cases among the 45 podium places from 1996 to 2010. (p. 7 and Appendix K)

And those are just the ones we know. Some people may have gotten away with it.

(Update: But it seems there were at least a few clean riders back in the day, according to this IM exchange. They must have been ticked off.)

7. Was the whole U.S. Postal/Discovery team involved?

One guy, Patrick Jonker, says no. But he admits he was on the “B team,” not in Armstrong’s inner circle.

8. How did Armstrong and his whole team get away with it for so long?

The George Hincapie affidavit says doping tests have improved over the years, so it would be more difficult today but wasn’t so hard a few years ago. Out-of-competition testing, when you’re really more likely to catch people, was rare a few years ago but has been stepped up. (In some years, Armstrong simply didn’t compete much in the events leading up to the Tour.) The USADA case spells out some creative evasive maneuvers.

Oh, and then there’s the witness intimidation.

9. What happens to Sporting Kansas City’s LiveStrong Park?

Nothing, KC exec Robb Heineman tells The Guardian (he happened to be in London). “We don’t stick our head in the sand… but it doesn’t change how we feel about the Foundation and the work they do.”

10. Isn’t this all a witch hunt?

What would be the motive?

Um ….

Exactly.

11. Well, what’s the harm? It’s not like people were dying.

Are you sure?

12. So the other guys say they quit?

Yes, and one cyclist, Steve Tilford, calls b.s. But he has made similar claims before, and the rebuttal was strong.

13. Will Armstrong lose his Olympic medal?

Maybe.

14. How did Jimi Hendrix figure into this?

USA TODAY dug that tidbit out. Substitute “EPO” for “Purple Haze.”

Lance Armstrong case: Because you have no plans this evening

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has a long release about the Lance Armstrong investigation at its site.

But wait, there’s more.

The evidence of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team-run scheme is overwhelming and is in excess of 1000 pages, and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with knowledge of the US Postal Service Team (USPS Team) and its participants’ doping activities. The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding. …

All of the material will be made available later this afternoon on the USADA website at http://www.usada.org.

So … shall we each take 100 pages and meet back here?

Cycling vs. Floyd Landis: Can Swiss court really tell him what to say?

Guess which of the following Floyd Landis is explicitly forbidden to say about the UCI (cycling’s international federation), Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen, according to a Swiss court ruling (pardon the profanity):

  1. They’ve taken bribes.
  2. They delayed publication of a positive test by Alberto Contador.
  3. They burned LiveStrong bracelets at a cocktail party.
  4. They concealed doping cases.
  5. They’re terrorists.
  6. They’re just like Gaddafi.
  7. They’re responsible for the international economy crashing.
  8. They’re bigger than Jesus.
  9. They load the dice.
  10. They stack the deck.
  11. They’re full of shit.
  12. They have no regard for the rules.

Correct answer: All but 3, 7, 8 and 10. See the ruling for yourself.

Now guess where Landis has to publish a retraction of claims against the UCI and others at his own expense — it doesn’t specify standard ad rate or advertorial deal.

  1. The Wall Street Journal
  2. USA TODAY
  3. The Onion
  4. L’Equipe
  5. Le Temps (Switzerland)
  6. NYVelocity.com
  7. Velo News
  8. Cycling News
  9. De Volksrant (Netherlands)
  10. Velonation

Correct answer: All but USA TODAY and The Onion.

We’d need a lawyer to tell us if, say, NYVelocity.com is compelled to take a Landis retraction. That’s not an idle question. NYVelocity is taking up a defense fund for journalist Paul Kimmage, who faces a similar suit in Swiss court.

“But the only cyclist I know is Lance Armstrong,” you say. “What does this mean to him?”

It means that you might want to be careful about accusing the UCI of covering up a positive test for Armstrong. So in a tangential sense, it’s a “win” for Armstrong, but a slight one.

Landis did not contest the case. Kimmage’s case is due in court in December.

Can any lawyers tell us what Switzerland plans to do if Landis decides paying back the “Floyd Fairness Fund” donations are a higher priority than paying for ads in all these publications?

Why Lance Armstrong isn’t done with international authorities yet

The short answer: Because his associates’ cases are still active.

And that leads to this:

Translation of Travis Tygart’s interview with L’Équipe « Tour De José.

A few highlights:

– Travis Tygart talks about USADA’s reaction to death threats.

– Again, Tygart says Armstrong could’ve made things a lot easier by cooperating.

– Statute of limitations? Not so simple.

– The L’Equipe interviewer thinks the federal investigation into Armstrong must have stopped because it’s an election year. What?

Lance Armstrong: What has been accomplished?

The columns on Lance Armstrong just get nastier and nastier. The LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik actually delves into neo-libertarian bullying, saying if the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s lawyers were any good, they’d have better jobs. (If you feel compelled to retort in personal terms, use any combination of the words “writer,” “J.K. Rowling” and “best-sellers list.” Or, as Chris Farley once put it, “Is that Bill Shakespeare I see over there?”)

Let’s clear up one myth. USADA chief Travis Tygart is being painted as some cross between Inspector Javert and Kenneth Starr. He’s neither. He has evidence that he believes is enough to persuade neutral parties (if any exist) that Lance Armstrong was not totally clean in his Tour wins.

And yet, USA TODAY finds, Armstrong might not have lost all his Tour titles had he cooperated. Not that this is the important part to Armstrong. It’s not about the titles now. It’s his rep.

In any case, USADA’s authority to strip the titles is highly debated. That’s evident even from WADA’s John Fahey in his widely circulated quote: “Olympic medals and titles are for other agencies to decide, not WADA.” (All of which leads to a brilliant parody: “I Am Stripping the USA Women’s National Soccer Team of Their Gold Medals!”)

And so we raise the question: What has been accomplished here?

I’m late getting to a couple more good reads on the topic:

Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN: “As many critics have correctly suggested, the majority of other men who populated the podiums in that era are suspect, as well, so what good would it do to reshuffle the standings and refit the yellow jerseys? Cycling in those years is rapidly approaching the point of no-there-there, unless we co-sign the cynical premise that doping was so endemic that the playing field was level anyway.”

Jim Caple, ESPN: “We must test. But we also must draw a line somewhere. And going after athletes for something they might have done seven to 13 years ago clearly crosses that line. Stripping Armstrong of his titles does far more harm than good. USADA should have let this one go. The agency exists to police sports, not destroy them.”

– And a powerful, personal read from the WSJ’s Jason Gay, usually seen unleashing his wit on Twitter: “There will always be the moral relativists, outraged by outrage. There will always be those who point to the epidemic of doping, and wonder if the playing field was merely leveled. Don’t be naive, they say—sports is about the furious pursuit of an edge. In full arc of Armstrong’s story, doesn’t the good outweigh any allegation? That latter argument is not an abstraction to me. More than 10 years ago, I got a cancer diagnosis. From the start, doctors assured me it was quickly treatable, and it proved to be. But it was still frightening.”

I’m not comfortable calling myself an Armstrong apologist or even saying that it doesn’t matter. (Another clunker in that LAT column: “These pitchers are taking testosterone. Is that worse than hitters getting Lasik?” Yes. The technical counterargument for comparing routine eye surgery with screwing up your body to make it more susceptible to cancers and other ugliness would be “Duh.”) But I’m not going to discount the good Armstrong has done, even if it’s ironic that he’s so much better loved outside his sport than within it.

Armstrong isn’t Joe Paterno. It’s not a question of whether a lifetime of good work can be undone by a shocking secret of horrifying negligence. We’re talking about someone who, at the very least, played within the bounds of what he knew cycling could reasonably test.

So don’t make Armstrong the spokesman of the new wave of clean cyclists. Aside from that, what else can we say about him at this point?

Lance Armstrong saga brings out the vitriol

Yoda-speak: Hate leads to anger, anger leads … to writing about Lance Armstrong.

As with the opinion on Jon Jones v UFC, mainstream punditry seems to have shifted. Or maybe it just depends on what news organization you read. You’re read my take — either nuanced or wishy-washy, depending on how charitable you are. And I already mentioned George Vecsey’s take, in which the great columnist thinks Armstrong likely wasn’t doing anything others weren’t doing as well.

Let’s see what else is out there:

At USA TODAY, my excellent former colleague Christine Brennan bluntly labels Armstrong a cheater.

The Washington Post, on the other hand, aims both barrels of anger at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Tracee Hamilton: “Either a drug test is the standard, or it isn’t.” (To which Marion Jones could respond, “Wait, I didn’t have to go to jail?”)  Sally Jenkins, who duly gives the disclaimer that she has written with Armstrong, says curiously uses alleged World Anti-Doping Agency misdeeds and ties them to what she sees an overzealous U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which is a bit like throwing Sepp Blatter’s problems at Sunil Gulati’s feet.

Jenkins also implores Congress to step in and do something about “the WADA-USADA system,” calling it “simply incompatible with the U.S. legal system.”

So … I guess we won’t be sending any more athletes to the Olympics?

That said — Jenkins raises and repeats valid concerns about WADA and international arbitration. But thinking Congress can sort it out sure feels like betting on the wrong horse.

(Update: The Post is far from unanimous — Mike Wise calls Armstrong’s move a vindication of his longtime critics. One point worth mentioning: Armstrong’s critics don’t gain anything financially. Far from it. They stand to lose a lot. It’s not like the old WADA days where Dick Pound used his position to keep his name out there and occasionally tweak Americans.)

How do Armstrong’s sponsors feel? Former USA TODAY colleague Mike McCarthy finds Michelob Ultra sticking with him, and Oakley basically says “Prove it.”

Slate offers two takes — Josh Levin says Armstrong has managed to keep a core of true believers (looking around the Web and my own Facebook feed, I’d argue it’s more than a small core) and his “righteous indignation.” Jeremy Stahl, who has covered cycling, echoes the points Vecsey and I have made — if you strip Lance, who of the other suspected or convicted dopers will take his titles?

The Economist’s Game Theory blog, a good quirky read for those of us who like quirky sports coverage, views the Armstrong saga as a tragedy.

Let’s leave it to Mike Lopresti, a pro’s pro among columnists, to add some gray to the black-and-white case:

What Lance Armstrong shows us is that human nature will never be as straightforward as a box score or a talk show. We are quick to build up and even quicker to tear down, because to do either draws attention. But sport, like life, is almost always somewhere in the middle. Too bad, Armstrong’s story is not neat. They seldom are, those epics cluttered by flesh-and-blood. No matter how much we yearn them to be.

Metric, one of my favorite bands, has this lyric on their new album: “They were right when they said we should never meet our heroes.”  Perhaps it’s not so much that we shouldn’t meet them. Perhaps we need to be careful not to see them in absolutes.