Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Fall of Lance and the Future of Cycling

By: Bill Holmes

This is one blog post I would rather not write but I have to. I have invested time and money in both Lance Armstrong and cycling. Like most of you who grew up in the 50's, 60's or 70's, I rode my bike everywhere when I was a kid. I rode again in my 20's for a couple of years. I rediscovered bicycles about five years ago and have ridden almost daily for over four years. I ride for transportation, exercise, health and recreation. I'm one of the six people in America who watches bike races on TV and I subscribe to a couple of bicycle magazines. My local bike shop loves me for all the money I've spent there. As far as Lance goes, I admired his dedication to bettering the lives of those who have or had cancer and marveled at his athletic accomplishments. I've given money to Livestrong and bought Trek, Nike and Radio Shack products that probably enriched Lance. So it is sad to have to put my opinions of the current doping/cycling/Lance in writing.

As mentioned, I ride one of my bikes almost every day. I enjoy 99% of those rides. Sure, sometimes I get caught in the rain, have a flat, wear too many or too few clothes, get bugs in my teeth or fall down and get a boo boo. Still, I feel better and have seen and enjoyed things I missed hundreds of times when I drove by in a car. I've explored streets and neighborhoods I would never have driven through. So I owe a lot to cycling. Once you get involved in a sport or activity it's pretty normal to watch and admire the professionals. Of course I don't race in the Tour de France but like any amateur athlete I identify with the pros in my sport. Every Little Leaguer emulates his favorite ballplayer, every golfer wants to hit a two iron (if anybody still has a two iron) like Jack Nicklaus. I marvel that professional cyclists can ride well over 100 miles, often uphill, at an average speed twice as fast as I can for 30 miles. Then do it again the next day and the next.

I've supported Livestrong because I think they do good work and because my Mom was a cancer survivor. She didn't have support groups like Livestrong to help her or our family through that ordeal. I guess the fact that Lance Armstrong was a cyclist steered me more toward his charity rather than Komen or the American Cancer Society. No, I never thought of Lance as a hero, just a talented, dedicated athlete. I'm way too old to have any sports people as a hero and Willie Mays retired about 40 years ago. Lance's story was compelling. From deathbed to seven Tour de France (TDF) titles and he started a cancer foundation that has raised over $500 million.

So you see, I'm invested. This doping scandal hits a little closer to home than some of the others. I didn't much care if a 400 meter hurdler doped. I wasn't surprised by the baseball doping problems since I saw Barry Bonds head get bigger every season, little second basemen hit 45 home runs and 38 year olds have career seasons.

I guess I've had suspicions about Lance using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) for awhile. Cyclists kept failing tests, having titles vacated and lying about the results. It was an allergy pill, tainted food, second hand smoke or a thousand other excuses. Some were actually caught with the goods and suspended for a year or two. The problem was there was never any hard proof that Lance doped. He never failed a test or was caught with any drugs. A couple of his teammates were caught, but that didn't prove anything. I'm sure some of Barry Bonds' teammates played drug free. There was also the fact that Lance is a pretty abrasive and successful person who made enemies along the way. I always thought part of the criticism and allegations were rooted in jealousy and revenge. The cycling press, mostly in other countries, was out to get the big story on the big fish. The French press was particularly hostile. Hell, he won their race seven times. More recently I've been concerned by government and quasi-government agencies getting involved in policing sports and athletes. Too many leagues, associations, commissions, agencies and committees seem to be in charge. Too much public money has been spent investigating and prosecuting athletes with minimal results. For more on that see my previous blog post on PEDs I wrote a couple of months ago.
Now the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has made their case file about Lance Armstrong public and has turned it over to the International Cycling Union (UCI). I know, it looks like it should be ICU, but it's officially the Union Cycliste Internationale. Only the UCI, as the official governing body of cycling, can actually strip Armstrong of his TDF titles. On Monday, October 22, 2012, the UCI agreed with the USADA findings and stripped Armstrong of most of his professional cycling results including his seven TDF titles. He is also banned for life from cycling. USADA's ban will keep him from participating in any US sanctioned athletic events such as triathlons or marathons. 
The UCI press conference on October 22nd did not address who, if anyone, should inherit Armstrong's titles. A committee was formed to decide that. The problem is that almost every cyclist that shared the podiums with Lance has tested positive for, admitted to or been implicated in doping. It would be like Major League Baseball vacating Barry Bonds' records and giving them to Mark McGwire.

I've read the USADA report and several of the attachments. It is a huge document. The preponderance of evidence seems to overwhelmingly point to systematic use of PEDs over many years by Armstrong and his teammates. Doping that was encourage and assisted by team management. Several of those teammates and team members have admitted to drug use and testified that that they've witnessed Armstrong use drugs and/or he helped them dope. One or two disgruntled teammates could be dismissed as sour grapes. Several team members, some longtime allies, admitting institutionalized PED use on the teams can not be considered a conspiracy to defame an innocent man. Armstrong and his cohorts are either guilty as sin or the targets of the biggest conspiracy in anti-doping history. There were over 25 witnesses that testified. There are also financial records and questionable drug results in the findings. My conclusion is that Armstrong not only used PEDs but virtually forced his teammates to do the same and helped them do it. All in support of his TDF titles.

So what's next? Armstrong's sponsors are abandoning the sinking ship in droves. He has stepped down as the Chairman of his Livestrong foundation. I think the fact that Nike fired him is especially damning. He's only the second endorsement athlete they've fired, the first was Michael Vick and they've rehired him. Apparently using PEDs is worse than killing dogs. Not only did Nike fire Armstrong, they put out a scathing statement that he had doped for years and deceived them about it. "Just Do It" apparently doesn't mean just do drugs. I am certain that Nike and their gaggle of lawyers went over the USADA documents line by line before making their decision and issuing their statement. Most of his other sponsors quickly followed suit. They all have their own gaggle of lawyers too. I'm sure there will be lawsuits coming. That's what we do in this country. A couple might be legitimate, but most will be to make some found money or gain publicity. Through it all, Lance has maintained he never use PEDs and it's all a conspiracy against him. I think when you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar, even if overwhelmingly circumstantial, the best course is to admit the mistake and move on. Americans are forgiving. Several admitted dopers, both performance and recreational, have made comebacks and been accepted by the public and the fans.

If Armstrong is stripped of his TDF titles, the UCI will probably be forced to leave seven championships vacant. All seven of the TDF runners up to Armstrong have been sanctioned for PEDs or suspected of using. You can't strip the title from one doper and then give it to another doper. I also think it would be ashame to not have a winner for seven years of one of the most famous and prestigious sporting events. Other professional sports usually don't wipe out champions and records because of failed drug tests or evidence of PEDs. Barry Bonds is still the official home run leader, Roger Clemens record still shows over 300 wins, Alex Rodriguez still gets to play poorly in post-season and make $29 million a year. There is no need to strip Lance of his titles. Everyone will know that he used PEDs to win in an era of cycling when almost everyone used PEDs. These drugs don't magically make you a world class athlete. You or I could take every drug known to man and still not compete with these folks. It's like naturally gifted athletes. They can get by at first but then they run into athletes that also have natural ability and work harder. Lance competed against naturally gifted cyclists who trained hard and took PEDs. He either had more natural ability, trained harder or took more/better drugs. Probably a combination of all three, plus he had an iron will.

My solution is to leave the cycling record books as they are just as we leave the baseball, football, soccer, … records. Everyone with a brain knows Hank Aaron is the all-time home run leader, not Barry Bonds. Lance won more than anyone else in the doping era competing against other dopers. Now we know Eddy Merckx is still the best cyclist ever (I realize that may be a little obscure). Just make sure it's noted that cycling from about 1995 to 2010 was tainted by drugs. As for the money Armstrong made, let Trek and Nike go after him if they choose. I suspect Lance is in for a very rough and financially devastating few years with both civil and criminal actions. Many lawyers will be getting rich.

As for cycling in general I think they should follow the South African model. Cycling from the top governing agencies down to the newest team intern has been complicit in over a decade or two of institutionalized doping. If an athlete wanted to compete at the top levels they needed a little PED help to keep up. Like the apartheid in South Africa there needs to be a way to make a clean slate and a new beginning. Now make no mistake, I in no way think the PED dilemma in cycling compares to the atrocities or aftermath of South African apartheid. The parallel is that a bad practice had become institutionalized, accepted and almost required. Mandela and de Klerk realized that amnesty and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a viable solution. The same thing could work for cycling but it would have to include all parties. That's athletes, team management, team and race sponsors, race organizers, drug enforcement agencies and governing bodies. South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation Commission was fortunate to have leaders like Nelson Mandela convene it and Desmond Tutu preside over it. Cycling does not have leaders of that character but there must be a few folks a notch or two below who could sort this mess out. I'm not going to hold my breath that his will happen anytime soon. Until cycling is hit with economic loses they will try to say all is well and continue business as usual. The quickest way to real change would be for the sponsors to ban together and demand change from the top down. If the team and event sponsors apply united pressure changes will be made. Road cycling is completely dependent on sponsors. You can't charge admission to spectators along a 120 mile course over public roads. A professional union for the riders should be established too. Let's break the dictatorial and monopoly power of the UCI.

There are no winners here, at least not yet. Let us hope that cycling can right their ship, fix their problems and emerge better and stronger. It is a beautiful sport and an even better activity. I hope I can ride for another 15 years and enjoy the Tour de France for another 20. As for Lance, let's hope he gets his due for trashing cycling and being a complete ass.

So, ride your bike and support the charity of your choice. I will.


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