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Fri Aug 24, 2012, 01:30 PM

The case against Lance Armstrong. [View all]

I made a post about Lance Armstrong's doping a few months ago, and because Lance is in the news right now, and there are a few OPs about him, I am reposting it as an OP.

For the record, I don't intend on getting into big arguments about this. I come to this mainly from the point of view of cycling and sports science, meaning that I think of Armstrong as a cyclist first rather than a cancer survivor/activist. So, I'm posting the basic facts about Armstrong and about doping in cycling as I understand them, just for the sake of people who don't know too much about the situation and are curious to know more.

I realize that Armstrong has been an inspirational figure to many, and so from certain perspectives it can look like this is all a witch hunt by bureaucrats looking to assert their power or French people resentful that an American keeps beating them at their own bike race. I don't mean to discount anyone who has been inspired by Armstrong's story, but, based on the evidence as I see it, there is pretty much no doubt that Lance Armstrong was systematically doping for his entire career, or at the very least for his entire comeback.

I posted the following in response to the very common and reasonable question: if he was doping, why has he never failed a test?
The short answer to your question is that the testing is not even close to foolproof. Armstrong is far from the only doper to never test positive. 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis never got caught, but later admitted that he had been doping for five years. Sprinter Marion Jones never tested positive. Jan Ullrich never tested positive, but was later implicated in the Operacion Puerto doping case. And even people who did finally get caught, like Floyd Landis or Tyler Hamilton, only got caught after years of successfully beating the tests.

The unfortunate truth is that, while testing positive is very strong evidence of doping, but not testing positive basically proves nothing. Probably the single best piece of evidence against Armstrong is that he won seven TdFs at a time when doping was rampant. The story sometimes peddled about doping is that it is a "short-cut" for people who don't want to work hard. This is not even close to the truth. The best cyclists train incredibly hard and also take PEDs -- in fact, one of the benefits of doping is that it allows you to train harder and recover faster. And PEDs don't just give you a small boost in performance, they give you a huge boost in performance. So it is almost out of the question that anyone who finished in the top five or even top ten of the TdF while Lance was competing was entirely clean. Much less a guy who rose from being a good but unremarkable rider before cancer to a seven-time winner, who repeatedly defeated Jan Ullrich, who is not only a biological freak of nature but was also doped up at the time.

Also, it is not quite true that he never failed a drug test. For example, once he tested positive for corticosteroid, but then, according to his masseuse, he had a doctor backdate a prescription for a certain cream in order to get a medical exemption. Then there was the EPO incident. EPO is a substance which causes the body to produce more red blood cells, and for a long time it was widely used by cyclists (and other athletes) and there was no effective test for it. When they developed a test, they went back and tested a bunch of "B" urine samples from the 1999 Tour de France, just for research purposes. A reporter managed to get hold of the results, and it turns out that several of Armstrong's samples tested positive for EPO. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/magazine/05/23/lance.armstrong/index.html

And then there is corruption -- according to Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong tested positive for EPO in the 2001 tour of Switzerland but he talked to the UCI and got the positive test to "go away". Nobody knows the exact details of how (or whether this actually happened), but it is a fact that Armstrong has made two donations to the UCI in his career for a total of $125,000, and for the UCI to accept money from Lance Armstrong is a monumental conflict of interest.

It is true, though, that Armstrong officially never got caught for doping. But like I said, there are a lot of people who everyone knows doped, some of whom have admitted it, who went a whole career without getting caught. There is an arms race of sorts between dopers and testers, and the most sophisticated dopers (including Armstrong) manage to stay ahead of the testers. For example, even after EPO became banned, there was still blood doping to increase your red blood cell count -- this is where receive an actual blood transfusion during a race. In fact, this is how Tyler Hamilton got busted, when they came out with a test that could detected foreign blood cells in the blood. Of course, AFAIK, they still can't test for "autologous" blood doping -- this is where you extract blood from your own body, allow your body to regenerate the blood cells, and then re-insert your own preserved blood back during a race. Someday, I imagine, they'll be able to test for that, but the dopers will have figured some other thing out by then.

As far as why they are going after Lance. This is because, on paper, he is one of the greatest cyclists of all time, but in reality, he is a fraud. Although it is true that many if not most professional cyclists use performing enhancing drugs, Lance was known not just as an avid doper, but also as an enforcer of the "omerta" -- the code of silence in the sport of cycling with regards to doping.

One incident that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way was when Armstrong chased down another cyclist named Filippo Simeoni. The basic story is that Simeoni was part of a six-person break that included no first-tier riders. Typically, the etiquette here would be to let the break go, and give the non-name riders a chance for glory by winning one stage. Since none of the riders were a threat to win the overall race, there was no need to worry about the time lost. Anyway, basically what happened is that Armstrong chased the break down and told the riders he would only let them go if Simeoni dropped back into the main pack. And this was revenge for the fact that Simeoni had testified against a doctor named Michele Ferrari for being involved in doping -- not coincidentally, Armstrong has worked extensively with Ferrari during his career.

Finally, it's not because the French don't like an American winning the tour. It may be true that the French don't like Lance, but Greg Lemond won the tour three times before Lance. The real issue is simply that the man who, on paper, won the tour more times than anyone else is a fraud. And not just a small fraud, an enormous fraud. In contrast to his off-bike persona, where he claims it's all about cancer and would never cheat or put any drugs in his body, in cycling he is a serial doper, and not a reluctant one, but an enthusiastic one. It's also important because doping in sports is a bad thing -- it makes it impossible for riders to want to ride clean, or even "mostly" clean, to compete at the highest levels, and it forces athletes to engage in practices that are potentially harmful just in order to remain competitive.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose, the integrity of cycling doesn't really matter that much. It would be nice if bike races were about athletic competition, and not about who has more sophisticated doping protocols and better "sports doctors". But compared to something like getting universal health care, this is really not a big deal, and it only affects a small number of people.

Still, if you are intersted, I would recommend reading "From Lance to Landis" by journalist David Walsh. It's a pretty enlightening read, and it pains a pretty stark picture of the doping situation in cycling, and also presents some pretty damning evidence agains Lance -- and this was even before Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton publicly accused Armstrong.


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