Not surprising to many, Lance Armstrong has been officially accused by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) of running the biggest doping conspiracy in sports history. In a damning report issued this week, the USADA leveled six charges against Armstrong, among which are use of banned substances, trafficking in and administering them to other athletes, and conspiracy to defraud investigators (cover-up). All of this takes place during the time frame when Armstrong dominated the sport of cycle racing. The report has been sent to the International Cycling Union, the governing body of the sport, which has twenty-one days to review and respond to the charges.
In fairness, the sport has been under a cloud of suspicion for years, with many accusations flying about among riders, coaches and those close to the sport that anywhere from a large segment to the majority of athletes were using or attempting to utilize some sort of chemical enhancement to boost performance. Yet the magnitude of the Armstrong case is ensconced in the report’s phrase that the his alleged violations and cover-up are “more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history.“
The report includes money trails, eyewitness accounts of wrongdoing, and a constant connection between Armstrong and disgraced and controversial Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, mastermind of sports enhancement through pharmacology and blood-boosting. Under Armstrong’s alleged regime, athletes were pressured to participate in illegal substance usage, intimidated and slandered if they didn’t or blew the whistle, instructed in how to skew lab tests, and to perjure themselves when and where necessary. Lacking only a trail of dead bodies, this report has most of the elements of a Colombian drug lord’s story.
Many of the alleged practices have skated close to or over the edge of regulations, but proving such has been frustratingly difficult. There is an entire industry of masking substances and techniques that has sprung up in order to enable cheaters to beat the testing process and get away with their chicanery.
We watched as all-time home run champion Barry Bonds deflected, dissembled and outright lied before a grand jury in 2003 over steroid use in major league baseball. Bonds was subsequently convicted of obstruction of justice in April of last year. He testified that the two substances manufactured by BALCO that he was using at the time were ‘flaxseed oil’ and an ‘arthritic crèam’, rather than a designer steroid combo as alleged. Of note in the case is the willingness of his personal trainer and long-time friend Greg Anderson to be taken directly to prison for civil contempt three times, for refusing to testify against Bonds. Anderson had already done a stretch of time for steroids distribution and money laundering. As Bonds’ go-between to BALCO, Anderson was the only person whose testimony could directly implicate Bonds. His silence must have come at a considerable price, as with Armstrong’s cohorts.
We’ve also been treated to the humiliating spectacle of vitamin-injecting Roger Clemens’ ‘Congressional Glad-handing Tour’ when he was facing the same charges. And who can ever forget Mark McGwire’s enlightening good-citizen testimony before Congress on steroid usage in pro sports, when he answered the question about his own illegal substance use with the statement, “I’m not here to dwell on the past…” He might as well have said, “Nolo contendere”, because that’s what all of us heard.
Speaking of us, we are the real losers here. These various and sundry ’athletes’ all have money, fame, accolades and a place in history. Even though they are now official members of Team Asterisk, their cheating and scheming has diminished what their real accomplishments actually might have been. Bonds, McGwire and Clemens are all talented giants on the baseball landscape. Each brought to the game an elevated set of skills and competitiveness that we as fans enjoyed, without the chemical enhancements. Why they felt compelled to cheat to achieve even more is a question only they can offer. Who knows how many of those Tour de France titles Armstrong actually would have won without the drugs and other banned techniques? He is a remarkably determined, energetic cyclist and athlete, by any account. Instead, they are all buried under the stink of scandal, and the real winners have no recourse nor none of the enjoyment of their victories. Does anyone remember who the declared winner of the NY Marathon was when Rosie Ruiz was disqualified for riding the subway to victory? Neither will the winners of those seven Tours be recalled to the public mind.
The fans, as usual, are the ones left with the empty bag. It’s a shame, because we need role models now as much as ever. While it’s unfair to ask pro athletes to shoulder the expectations of the public, it’s more than reasonable to ask them to compete honestly. We deserve that.
Image: Lance Armstrong, 2008 Tour de Gruene, near New Braunfels, Texas; courtesy of Daniel Norton; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Image: Various anabolic steroids; courtesy of Wikidudeman; public domain