There comes a point in most chess games where the outcome is essentially assured. Even though the victory has yet to take place by way of checkmate, there are so few pieces left on the board, so few choices left to the trailing player that each remaining move is but a formality. In signaling that he will not engage USADA in arbitration, Lance Armstrong has essentially conceded defeat in his protracted match against Travis Tygart.
Make no mistake, to view this case as anything other than a mano a mano battle of Tygart v. Armstrong requires a willful blindness to ego. The strategies employed by Armstrong’s legal team, which were rebuffed repeatedly for lacking any legal basis, seemed to coast on the idea that somehow the sheer fact that this was, after all, Lance Armstrong, would be enough to shut down the legal process. It wasn’t. And Tygart’s pursuit of the case has left many to wonder if maybe there weren’t more pressing fires.
While Armstrong has not yet been stripped of his wins, his decision not to pursue arbitration means that USADA can follow that course of action, unimpeded by Armstrong or his defenders. In his statement announcing his decision not to continue his defense Armstrong gains two small benefits. First, he gets the chance to play martyr, as evidenced by his “Enough is enough” quote from his announcement. He’ll receive plenty of sympathy from those who have been unswayed by the evidence against him. Second, he avoids what would be a truly bloody melee had he pursued the arbitration. The sure knowledge that some of his most loyal friends would have been pitted against him must have cut to the core.
But what of USADA? What have they gained?
“It’s a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes,” said Tygart. “It’s yet another heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe and honest competition.”
Tygart’s devotion to this case makes his claim that this is a sad day ring more hollow than a drum. He claims that the win-at-all costs culture has the ability to eclipse fair, safe and honest competition. In that regard, he’s right. And that conditional—”if left unchecked”—that checks and balances system, how well is that working?
It’s that part of the process that I believe is most broken. Armstrong isn’t the problem. It’s that the sport’s testing has been woefully inadequate. The UCI was so derelict in its duty that once EPO infiltrated the peloton riders were faced with the choice of either being pack fodder or cheats. It’s a hell of a choice and for those who find it so easy to condemn those who buckled to the coercion, sometimes explicit, always implicit, please let us know how life in a glass house is working out.
If any good is to come of this situation it is that the UCI may be exposed for efforts to quash one or more positive tests by the seven-time Tour de France winner. And while the worst of the UCI’s alleged questionable choices happened before Pat McQuaid took over as boss, the fact that he instigated the jurisdictional fight with USADA as regards the Armstrong case means he is equally complicit in any previous coverup by attempting to quash a thorough investigation. Exposing the UCI as a body unfit to police bicycle racing is quite possibly the only helpful thing that could come from this. At least then, if the UCI were dismantled and replaced by a new governing body, we might gain some fresh confidence—a confidence we currently lack—that racing might be properly policed.
Again, what have we gained? Doping is a present-tense problem. If Johan Bruyneel is actively managing a doping program for some of his riders, then he should be banned from the sport, but this outcome doesn’t yet assure that. And those doctors? Their names are tarnished enough that it seems unlikely a team would hire them, though it would surprise few if they turned up in, say, swimming. A ban for them seems warranted.
Once the procedure this announcement sets in motion has run its full course, here’s what the Tour de France results will look like:
1999: 1. Alex Zulle 2. Fernando Escartin 3. Laurent Dufaux
2000: 1. Jan Ullrich 2. Joseba Beloki 3. Christophe Moreau
2001: 1. Jan Ullrich 2. Joseba Beloki 3. Andrei Kivilev
2002: 1. Joseba Beloki 2. Raimondas Rumsas 3. Santiago Botero
2003: 1. Jan Ullrich 2. Alexandre Vinokourov 3. Tyler Hamilton
2004: 1. Andreas Klöden 2. Ivan Basso 3. Jan Ullrich
2005: 1. Ivan Basso 2.
Jan Ullrich Francisco Mancebo 3. Alexandre Vinokourov
Take a moment to consider the names that were elevated in Armstrong’s absence. With the exception of Andrei Kivilev, during their careers each of those riders tested positive for doping, confessed to doping in the Festina scandal or were strongly implicated in Operacion Puerto. Be not confused: This is not a fix for one simple reason: It does nothing to solve the doping occurring today.
Whether we speak of the 2012 Tour de France, the Gran Fondo New York or masters track nationals, there is plenty of doping going on right now, some of which—particularly the events open to amateur athletes—that has the ability to turn people away from the sport altogether.
When I think of the biggest problems that cycling faces, Lance Armstrong doesn’t make the list. Even if you despise him, on balance, he’s done more good than bad. He isn’t, as Greg LeMond would have you think, “the greatest fraud.” Bernie Madoff’s victims would laugh that out of any court you choose. Hope can’t really be cheated and he gave a great many people hope when they might otherwise have had none. And the bike industry has plenty to be grateful for. The increase in new road cyclists that began in 1999 is still paying dividends. I worked for the only all-road publication in the U.S. in 1998 and it died an emaciated, withering death even before Marco Pantani rode down the Champs Elysees clad in the maillot jaune. Today there are four different road-specific print publications; I have no doubt their emergence would not have happened without Armstrong’s victories.
The public wants cycling that is free of doping, full stop. The challenge we face is one of leadership. Adjudicating the past won’t fix today and attempts to cover up the past, no matter by what method, undermine the moral platform from which a governing body operates. More testing is required and better testing is required. To achieve those, cycling must be better funded. Given that the majority of cycling’s funding comes from outside sources, a dearth of sponsorship won’t get us there. And the public execution of Lance Armstrong has ensured one thing: That tens of millions of dollars that could have gone to sponsoring racers and races will go to some sport that’s less embarrassing to be a part of. A cleaner sport. Say, football or baseball.
Thanks Travis, we’ll take it from here.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International