Based on what has already been revealed in advance of tomorrow’s 60 Minutes edition on CBS regarding evidence given by former US Postal teammates Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie, it would appear that the FDA investigators’ net is beginning to tighten around seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and his alleged use of banned performance-enhancing substances such as erythropoietin (EPO) and testosterone.
This has led to much heated debate in cycling circles and on Twitter, with both sides digging in their heels. Armstrong’s camp say there is no tangible evidence as yet and point to over 500 negative doping tests in his career. The haters are already pronouncing him guilty and dancing on his grave with almost unseemly glee. However, it should be noted that any testimony, no matter how damning it may seem in soundbite form, does not automatically guarantee a conviction in a court of law. Any assumptions about Armstrong’s guilt are, for now at least, no more than that: assumptions.
But what if Armstrong is guilty? When the flush of success for his opponents wears off, what are the implications for the future of cycling – remembering that we still have Alberto Contador‘s hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport to follow in June? What if we suddenly find that the winners of 11 of the last 12 Tours de France – Armstrong (seven) Contador (three) and Floyd Landis - have in fact been exposed as cheats after the event?
Looking at the bigger picture, here are five questions which will need to be addressed if Armstrong and/or Contador are convicted – and one which requires an answer regardless:
1. Where do you draw the line?
There are arguments for and against delving back into cycling’s past to clean up its act. On the one hand, it is important for the sport to be seen not to ignore its often sordid past. On the other, convicting past offenders does nothing to aid the current and future battle against doping. (Indeed, it could deflect focus and resources away from it.)
I don’t have a problem with the federal investigation into Armstrong, but it’s important to decide where to draw the line going forward. We already know about Jan Ullrich, Bjarne Riis and Laurent Fignon. But what about Miguel Indurain? Or Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil, the last of whom admitted in all but name that doping was ubiquitous in the sport in his era. I am absolutely not saying that all of the above were dopers. But I’m certainly not saying all of them were ‘clean’ either.
Where does ‘investigation’ end and ‘witch-hunt’ begin? The line needs to be drawn somewhere.
2. Should Armstrong be stripped of his seven wins?
Ullrich was runner-up behind Armstrong three times, but is hardly a paragon of virtue himself (image courtesy of Wikipedia)
Riis, Fignon and Anquetil’s names remain in the record books, despite their confessions or virtual admissions. But should Armstrong’s name be eradicated?
Emotionally, it is easy to say yes. Rationally, it is a tougher call. Consider who would become the winners of the Tour in the Armstrong years of 1999-2005, and the lines of fairness start to blur:
- Alex Zülle (1999) – admitted taking EPO as part of the 1998 Festina affair.
- Jan Ullrich (2000, 2001, 2003) – implicated in Operación Puerto and suspended from the 2006 Tour. He was never formally banned – he retired first – but there was certainly considerable evidence linking him to doping.
- Joseba Beloki (2002) - implicated in Operación Puerto, but subsequently cleared by Spanish authorities.
- Andreas Klöden (2004) – allegations in 2009 claiming that he used illegal blood transfusions during the 2006 Tour.
- Ivan Basso (2005) – implicated in Operación Puerto. Banned for two years in 2007.
Where does the trail of suspicion end? At this rate, I am looking forward to being declared the winner of the 2003 Tour – although I would probably be disqualified for some technicality or other.
3. What is the role of the UCI in all this?
There have long been allegations of senior figures in the UCI being implicit in covering up positive doping tests by Armstrong at both the 1999 Tour de France and 2001 Tour de Suisse. Certainly, their handling of the Contador case – where they dallied over publicising his positive test until just before the media were about to break the story – does not inspire confidence. It at least supports the contention that the sport’s governing body may at times be more concerned with image than truth.
Armstrong may be guilty. But if so I doubt he is the only one who has had something to hide all this time. The American may go away. But the UCI remains, as do the questions over its objectivity.
4. What will happen in the US?
In the wake of Jan Ullrich and a catalogue of other negative doping stories, German media, fans and sponsors abandoned cycling in their droves. What if the same happens in the US as a result of an Armstrong conviction?
In particular Amgen, the current sponsor of the Tour of California, manufactures EPO, so it is hard to see how their position would remain tenable. (In truth, it is hard to understand their presence in the sport at all.) But will American team sponsors walk away, just as T-Mobile did in Germany? What would then be the future of RadioShack, HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervélo, three of the biggest teams in the sport? The US is a vital commercial market for any global sport, and largely as a result of Armstrong’s success it has blossomed in recent years. But cycling is not in the DNA of the US, unlike in many European countries. If the American market and sponsors pick up their ball and walk away, can the sport’s commercial structure and ambitions survive in its current form?
5. What is the future for cycling?
The potential closure of the US market. A discredited sport which turns away casual viewers. Perhaps even a disillusioned core of dedicated fans, some of whom will decide enough is enough. It may be a doomsday scenario, but it is certainly possible.
Many of the smaller teams already live something of a hand-to-mouth existence. Cycling is not a sport overflowing with multi-millionaires and baby Bentleys. Take away the lucrative US market and potentially other big European sponsors who no longer want to be associated with cycling, and the sport would face a significant financial downsizing in order to survive. Sure, the biggest races – the Grand Tours, the Classics and so on – would continue, but what about the smaller races which are valuable fund-raisers and allow the larger teams to run with 25-30 man squads.
Could we see a contraction of the sport, with a reduced calendar of smaller races and teams being forced to reduce their roster by, say, 25-30%? It’s not a very attractive future, is it?
One more question
Hincapie's testimony appears damning - but how has this come to be public knowledge?
Regardless of what happens from here on in, exactly how did CBS learn of Hincapie’s testimony? The rider himself says he did not talk to CBS. CBS confirms they did not talk to Hincapie. And yet we not only know that Hincapie testified in front of the authorities, but we also know the gist of what he said. Isn’t grand jury testimony supposed to be privileged information? So who leaked the story, and why?
For further reading and an expert opinion, I would recommend Cycle Sport‘s Lionel Birnie‘s piece which helps join the dots as we know them so far. We still don’t know anything for sure – and won’t do for some time, even after the 60 Minutes programme airs tomorrow – but the previously murky picture does appear to be slowly becoming clearer, and it is not one which makes for attractive viewing, whether you are Lance Armstrong or a fan of cycling in general.
Following the 60 Minutes timeline
Something old, nothing new, lots of hearsay turns fans blue – yes, it’s Lance again
Does Hincapie’s testimony signal game, set and match for Lance Armstrong?