24 August 2012

The fall of a non-hero

I have been surprised by today's news that Armstrong will not fight to protect his reputation. I've been even more startled to read some of the comments here and there. Here's my take on it, with some facts, comments and questions.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Some facts

- Armstrong has tested positive in 1999. Whatever the substance, his honesty can always be put in question. In fact, he tested positive again in 2005, this time for EPO, on the remaining sealed sample of 1999 (the other one, tested in 1999, was therefore unusable).

- Armstrong donated $125,000 to the International Cycling Union (and was friends with the then-head)... conflict of interest, anyone? Armstrong can do what he wants, of course, but what credibility is left to the governing body of that sport which also, at the time, gave the testing mandate to specific anti-doping agencies?

- Armstrong won ahead of other riders who tested positive or recognised using drugs.

- Armstrong regularly cycled with more than 430 Watts delivered, especially in tough climbs. Most, if not all, riders with that sustained output have all been found guilty of doping (if it's not even physically impossible to deliver that power on prolonged distances).

- Witnesses who were ready to testify against Armstrong include Hincapie, Vande Velde and Zabriskie, who were among his closest team mates. What's in common with the three of them? They have never tested positive for doping or admitted to any doping.

- Armstrong always fought: against his cancer, but also against anyone who criticised him (check names like Christophe Bassons, Greg LeMond, etc.). Hordes of lawyers have always been doing the legwork for him. It is not his personality not to fight, especially when the most serious accusations are made against him: all his titles and winnings are at stake, but, most of all, his reputation. From a tactical standpoint, if he is guilty, it's a "smart" move from him: no one will know the truth for sure, no one will hear witnesses.

- Armstrong won fame and dozens of millions of dollars by winning races, which in turn allowed him to make his foundation popular. Not the other way around.

- There is a lot of confusion about what a positive or negative doping test means. It seems to surprise many that being negative does not necessarily mean that one has not used drugs. Why? Because anti-doping agencies cannot afford to have false positives (i.e. a clean athlete turning out positive in tests) because it would ruin the credibility and reputation of too many people on false grounds. So thresholds have to be high (or low) enough so that they the athletes the agency catches are absolutely 100% doped. Unfortunately, we can't tell for all the others who tested negative whether they are guilty or not. They have the benefit of the doubt... unless there is enough evidence against them via other means (see above and comment below).

Some comments

- I am already astonished by the comments I read here and there. I can't even imagine the backlash an anti-doping agency would have received if that agency were not American...

- What does the American agency have to gain in this scandal? Nothing as far as I know – except to stir up expected hate against it.

- Anyone noticed how Armstrong was indeed "the boss"? How come he was allowed to take 20 minutes in his quarters, with bodyguards protecting entries, between being notified of an anti-doping test and actually showing up? No proof indeed, but for those who have followed professional cycling, you'd be disgusted by all the ingenious techniques athletes (and doctors) have put together over the past decades to ensure that anti-doping tests turn out negative, from rectal hiding places to, in the possible case of Armstrong, replacing urine and diluting his blood. Yes, in twenty minutes, that's possible. But who knows what he really did?

- Just as sometimes when a victim's body has not been found and suspected murderers can still be found guilty based on an array of evidence, why wouldn't an athlete be found guilty even if his anti-doping tests turned out negative (read above on false positives and on cheating techniques)?

- His refusal to protect his reputation means he is guilty in the eyes of the US anti-doping agency.

- Maybe one further hint of him doping and transfusing his blood will arrive by plotting his age when he dies on the chart of the athletes who died (relatively) young and who were convicted or suspected to resort to doping, and comparing it to the chart of clean athletes. With dark humour, maybe we don't have long to wait?

Some questions

- Who's not doped in cycling (or in most professional sports)? Or rather, among the winners and those on the podiums, who really isn't doped?

- No, it's not applying today's standards to yesterday's blood samples. Standards in sports are the same: no cheating. And if you're sick and need medical prescription, stay at home. Enough of those fake medical certificates. Indeed, "enough is enough".

- Will anti-doping agencies finally do their work? Will they go after all athletes who are on the podiums, especially those who are considered winners after the fact because the previous winner has been convicted of doping?

- No "champion", whoever they are, should have favours when it comes to immediately testing their blood or urine. Why even have a limit in time for drug testing as long as samples do not deteriorate in time?

I always watched the Tour de France with sad and sceptical eyes after the Festina scandal in 1998. I tried to believe that after 1998, things got better. But over and over athletes got caught, more evidence came to light, and barely anyone on the recent podiums came out eventually clean. Sad. I will leave you with something that saddens me even more, when I learned today that paralympic athletes harm themselves to perform better (in particular by breaking their own toes). Read for yourself.

Some humour

To prevent doping in future cycling races, here's a suggestion: the last one to cross the finish line wins the race. If you think about it, it's pretty tough to keep balance on a bike at slow speed. Of course, it would not be allowed for a cyclist to set foot on ground, too easy otherwise – and races should be fairly short too, because I'm not sure anyone would watch 200 kilometres of such a "race".