Now that Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner, has been thoroughly disgraced, one must ask: Has anyone learned anything?
In August, the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced that it had disqualified Lance Armstrong for his use of performance-enhancing drugs. His Tour de France victories were canceled, and he was banned from further competition in all Olympic sports. The agency announced that it would soon release its "reasoned decision," which it did on October 10.
Shortly before the anti-doping agency announcement, Armstrong announced that he would not respond to any decision taken. He was, he said, putting cycling behind him and moving on with his life promoting the fight against cancer.
Interestingly enough, however, Armstrong had mounted an aggressive and desperate legal campaign to prevent the arbitration process (to which he is subject pursuant to cycling rules and the provisions of the World Anti-Doping Code) from proceeding. His first attempt in the district court in Texas was thrown out. The judge found that the lengthy document, filled with purple prose, was unacceptable, both as to length, but, more important, content and tone. An abbreviated document was then filed. The action was defended by the agency. Armstrong lost.
The anti-doping agency's reasoned decision is a well prepared, well written, compelling document. Its statements and conclusions are supported by documentary evidence, scientific data and sworn affidavits -- more than a thousand pages in all. It is a shocking indictment of the conduct of the U.S. Postal Service cycling team and the riders and officials surrounding it. According to the agency report, Armstrong was not only complicit, but a leader who enforced the use of the performance-enhancing drugs. The conclusions of the report appear unassailable. Armstrong, who had an opportunity to challenge the findings, abandoned the field, in a complete reversal of all his previous conduct.
The International Cycling Union has until Halloween to decide whether it will accept the agency's decision. The World Anti-Doping Agency has a further three weeks to intervene, should the cycling union act in a manner which it believes to be incorrect. But the cycling union has already compromised itself by declaring in advance that the United States Anti-Doping Agency process was unsatisfactory. Any appeal which it might institute will lead to a far more searching investigation into its own activities than it is likely to relish.
While we wait for the outcome of that end-game, there are already some lessons to be learned.
1. This day of Armstrong's disgrace has been coming for some time. It would undoubtedly have come sooner but for the fact that the United States is arguably the most litigious country in the world. In order to make its statements regarding Armstrong, the U.S. anti-doping agency had to be more than certain of its facts. That takes time and careful research. There had been too much smoke for too long for unbiased observers not to believe that there must be some fire, as well. What they perhaps did not expect was the resulting conflagration.
2. You can intimidate some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Some who would have been willing to talk about Armstrong could not afford to defend against actual or threatened lawsuits. Some needed the jobs they had, which would be at risk or disappear if Armstrong wanted that to happen. Others were not willing to risk the harassment and abuse that came from crossing him.
3. The cheating involved was highly organized, well financed and well-coordinated. It was not simply a few athletes trying to get an edge by surreptitious use of banned substances. Instead it was an essential part of the USPS team strategy, and it involved participants in several countries, all working to achieve better competitive results by deliberately breaking agreed upon rules at the expense of athletes who competed clean.
4. The Armstrong and USPS revelations are so well documented that the cycling union officials have an all but insurmountable challenge if they seek to deny them or to try to sweep them under the carpet. Some of the claims in the report raise questions about whether there was involvement or awareness of the part of the union itself. What will the union do about that? A tougher question yet is whether they can credibly believe that the USPS team was the only team in the peloton that used drugs.
5. But the real question is how -- how? -- could the leading cycling officials, those most familiar with the sport and its riders, not have been aware of the nature and extent to which their sport was compromised?
Stay tuned. This is far from over, and there likely will be even more to be learned from this sordid affair.