Armstrong and doping in cycling

Last week, USADA published their “Reasoned Decision” regarding the Armstrong doping case.  I’ll admit, before reading what little of it I have, my opinion was basically, “Well, if he did, he got away with it.”  Well, it’s more nuanced than that now.

Let me first explain my understanding of the oversight involved – any differences from reality are my own fault.  First off, unless a drug is specifically illegal in the country(s) containing a race, the only prohibitions against using it are the regulations imposed by the race organizers.  To keep things sane for all involved, races affiliate themselves with one or more organizations and adhere to the guidelines from those organizations.  Also, the riders agree to binding terms, likely equivalent to a contract, outlining testing protocols and when race results can be overturned due to various offenses.  Other than that high level summary, I make no pretense of understanding the rules riders must adhere to when racing.

Suffice it to say that while various and numerous medical enhancements are strongly discouraged, the sanctions that can be imposed according to the various rules seem to have some amount of discretion.

For example, Bjarne Riis, who won the Tour de France in 1996, admitted in 2007 to using banned substances for that win – his victory has since been confirmed, but with an ‘*’ due to his offenses.  Yet, Floyd Landis placed first in the 2006 Tour de France, but had his victory stripped due to a positive drug test result.

However, the difference could simply be that in Landis’ case, he failed a drug test made at the time, while in Riis’ case, he did not fail one at the time and admitted his guilt later.  My understanding is that this could be a crucial difference due to the riders’ contracts, but I don’t know for certain.  It could also be due to the time that passed, equivalent to a statute of limitations.

So, with that background, what do I make of USADA’s report?

In short, it’s very damning.

I only read the statement regarding the report and then 5 of the riders’ affidavits (which can be found on the “Appendices and Supporting Materials” tab).  The riders’ affidavits I chose to read were four riders that I felt had good integrity in cycling and Landis’.  To my mild surprise, all of them admitted to doping while on Armstrong’s team (tho’ perhaps it would be more fair to call it Bruyneel’s team).

The affidavits of Zabriskie and Leipheimer are rather mundane, tho’ in Zabriskie’s case, it’s hard to be sure with so many pages failing to scan.  Tommy D’s affidavit drives home just how strong the pressure was from the team for him to accept enhancement.  In his case, he says he rode pure before joining Armstrong’s team, stopped accepting the help while still on the team due to health concerns with the whole process, and left the team as a result.

I read Landis’ affidavit to see what he said about his failed drug test in the 2006 TdF.  I thought if he explained how he enhanced for that, perhaps I might view the rest of his affidavit with equal integrity. But he essentially said nothing of interest about the 2006 result.

Hincapie’s affidavit is, I think, most important because it describes the initial pressure he and Armstrong felt to start enhancing due to their perceptions of how many competitors were already enhancing and the differences they observed as a result.  Also, all of the affidavits make it fairly clear how widespread efforts were among many, but apparently not all, teams to enhance their riders’ athletic performances.

The USADA report makes clear in my mind, Armstrong doped.  Likely too, so did many of his best competitors.  USADA wants to overturn Armstrong’s victories, but it’s not their call.  It’s the UCI’s.  And it’s possible the UCI could be restricted from doing anything about it, other than a notation akin to the one for Bjarne Riis.

But suppose for a moment that the UCI can strip Armstrong of his titles.  My question is this: is it fair to do so?  As a friend said about this earlier today, paraphrased, if all of his main competitors enhanced similarly, or at least had equal opportunity to do so, however unsavory that is, who’s to say the result isn’t fair?  I can’t think of any reason to dispute that point of view.

My take on it is that if you want to be strict and fair, then before Armstrong is stripped of any titles, it’s necessary to examine just as thoroughly every rider who placed after him to find one who didn’t enhance.  Then award that race’s win to that rider.  That’s likely to be a massive undertaking, since I recall reading somewhere, quite possibly apocryphal in nature, that the best placed rider in the 2005 TdF with no doping allegations historically against him finished, as best I recall, 23rd.

Here’s another question: do I really care if Armstrong doped?  A little, more-so because he won’t admit to it than that he did it because that speaks to his overall integrity.  But not at all with respect to my enjoyment of the sport itself, because what makes each race fun to watch is the complex interplay between personal ability, team tactics, physical constraints and emotional desire.  In that light, doping definitely skews the results, but matters not one whit to the thrill of wondering if a breakaway will succeed, or watching a daredevil 70mph descent down mountain roads, or the pain and heartbreak from an accident or bonking (or see here).

Update (10/26): The UCI’s decisions regarding Armstrong and Le Tour’s results.  I think they’re remarkably fair, well-reasoned and appropriate.

About twio

In accepting Doubt, I find Certainty
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