The long overdue freefall of Lance Armstrong has finally begun, and who knows when he will reach the bottom.
After years of denials from Armstrong — it turns out he was (big surprise) lying — his world is unraveling.
In recent weeks and days, the following developments: The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released 1,000 pages of evidence and testimony from 15 former teammates describing him as the mastermind of his team's use of performance-enhancing drugs. He was banned from cycling forever. He was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. His sponsors (Nike, Oakley, etc.) dropped him (according to Forbes, he lost endorsement deals that could cost him $150 million in speaking fees and sponsorships that he would have earned in the years to come). He relinquished chairmanship of his own Livestrong Foundation.
There are other future ramifications, as well: Various race organizers and sponsors could try to recover millions of dollars in prize money and bonuses (one insurance company alone paid him a $5 million bonus for winning the 2004 Tour de France).
Armstrong will be wiped from the record books, and years from now he will be only a footnote in the history of sport. Shoeless Joe, without the sympathy.
If you read "The Secret Race," authored by Daniel Coyle with former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton, you'll find it difficult to feel sorry for Armstrong. To put it simply, he is not a nice man. Hamilton paints a picture of an egomaniacal bully who fired longtime friends and associates when they challenged him on or off the bike or when they committed some imagined offense.
He believed that first place was his right and everyone else should stick to his role as an extra on the set. We're talking about a man who had his girlfriends vetted to ensure they were trustworthy.
So another legendary sports figure tumbles in the drug game. What did we learn this time?
Ignore those heartfelt denials athletes offer up when challenged by drug suspicions. Armstrong is a world-class liar, like Marion Jones and Barry Bonds and the rest of them, a man who could look you in the eye and not only deny doping but scold you with imperiousness and condescension for the question. When it came to lying, he outlasted all of his cycling peers, just like he did on the bike. Armstrong, like many PED users, subscribe to the George Constanza philosophy: "It's not a lie, if you believe it."
What's disturbing is how many people — fans, sponsors, media, the International Cycling Union (UCI) — gave Armstrong a free pass. Anyone who raised suspicions in recent years, including USADA — and there were many others — were attacked. Even when Floyd Landis and Hamilton went on national TV with their accusations, they were denigrated by an outpouring of support for Armstrong.
The problem with hero creation and worship is that it ignores even the most glaring red flags. Armstrong's career deserved a healthy dose of skepticism years ago, considering the parade of former teammates and rivals who were busted for doping and the number of detailed accusations that came from friends, associates and teammates. Almost every top cyclist in the world has been busted for PEDs or blood doping. Of those who shared the Tour de France podium with Armstrong during his seven-year win streak, only one hasn't been busted by drugs.
To believe Armstrong was clean, as Deseret News columnist Lee Benson noted, was to believe that he not only beat every cyclist in the world in the sport's biggest race during an unprecedented winning streak, but he did it while they were on drugs.
But look what he's done for charity, ran the final argument. He deserves the benefit of the doubt. He deserves some sort of leniency. Wrong. It was all built on a lie.
Drug testing is largely ineffective — in fact, it's a game for cyclists and not a very challenging one, either. Armstrong took hundreds of tests and passed them all (although Hamilton says Armstrong cut a financial deal with UCI after flunking one). Similarly, American sprinter Marion Jones never flunked any of the 160 tests she took. Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl says he took 200 drug tests in his career and had drugs in his system for half of them; he passed every test except one.
"Riders think they can get away with doping because most of the time they do," he said.
The common defense — by the accused and his entourage and fans — is that an athlete must be clean because he passed the drug tests. Hamilton noted that drug testers didn't have a chance — "They've got their doctors, and we've got ours, and ours are better — better paid, for sure," he said.
The details of cycling's drug system are presented in Hamilton's book. He describes a secret world of prepaid cellphones and bags of blood being raced around Europe and backwater hotel rooms and behind-the-scenes doctors and crawling around on the floor to evade a surprise visit from a drug tester and "glowtimes" (the time when a drug will still show up in a test), and syringes and needles and injections of EPO and starvation and severe weight loss and on and on it went. Hamilton described a substance that could be placed under the fingernails to escape detection — when providing a urine sample to a tester, the substance could be mixed with the urine and mask the drug.
When a test was finally created for EPO after years of research and a cost of millions, as usual the other side was one step ahead. Hamilton wrote, "It took (Doctor Michele Ferrari) about five minutes to figure out how to evade it. His solution was dazzlingly simple: Instead of injecting EPO subcutaneously (which caused it to be released over a long period of time), we should inject smaller doses directly into the vein, straight into the bloodstream, where it would still boost our red blood cell counts, but leave our body quickly enough to evade detection."
Drug use is a huge advantage. Don't believe the many athletes or their fans who defend drugs by saying they don't provide much of an advantage. For a cyclist, it was either do drugs or finish behind the peloton. It was that simple. Hamilton wrote about the first time he saw a cyclist he suspected of PED use — Bjarne Riis, a decent but not great competitor for most of his career until his late 20s (he eventually admitted using PEDs).
"I remember one of the first times I saw him up close, in the spring of 1997," wrote Hamilton. "We were going hard up some brutally steep climb and Riis was working his way through the group, except he was pushing a gigantic gear. The rest of us were spinning along at the usual rhythm of around 90 RPMs and here comes Bjarne, blank-faced, churning away at 40 RPMs, pushing a gear that I couldn't imagine pushing. Then I realized, he's training. The rest of us are going full bore, either trying to win or trying to hang on, and he's training."
The bottom line: Cyclists faced a choice — use drugs and blood dope or quit the sport, as some did.
As one cyclist told Sports Illustrated, "You'd have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants."
There is a poignant moment in the Hamilton book when, during a 2003 race, he is bleeding from a crash — blood dripping down onto the wheels and spattering everywhere — he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was teammate Nic Jalabert. "He didn't say anything," wrote Hamilton, "but I could feel what he meant: Tyler, it's just a bike race.)
Too bad Armstrong never figured that out.