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The Ban on Doping, Not Armstrong, Is the Problem with Cycling: Armstrong Is a Scapegoat for Cycling’s Hypocrisy

The International Cycling Union has stripped Lance Armstrong of his 7 Tour de France wins . UCI president Pat McQuaid said: “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling. He deserves to be forgotten.”

The UCI is acting in response to a “Reasoned Decision” by USADA , which claims Armstrong presided over “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”.

The decision includes the findings that:

“He was not just a part of the doping culture on his team, he enforced and re-enforced it.”

And the conclusion that, with their disposal of Armstrong:

“So ends one of the most sordid chapters in sporting history.”

Public condemnation has been swift, and harsh:

“Lance Armstrong has made it hard for anyone to trust cycling”

(British Cycling boss Dave Brailsford) .

“LANCE Armstrong is a creep. A liar, cheat and a bully. So awful is Armstrong, you are right to question whether all his work for cancer patients is not just calculated camouflage to protect his abuse of drugs, his competitors, teammates and supporters.

He is not just part of the drug regime that saturated cycling when he was at his peak, but he has been that culture’s bodyguard. Its enforcer. And he remains so today, arrogantly dismissing the US Anti-Doping Agency findings by telling the world through Twitter that he was “unaffected” by the release of the 1000-page investigation findings. No one in sport has lived a bigger lie.”

The Australian

It is hard in the face of the evidence presented to imagine that Armstrong rode clean. Nevertheless, he has become a scapegoat for endemic problems in cycling and sport that go far beyond the purview of any one rider, however successful and charasmatic.

For example, despite USADA’s own evidence (para 24) showing that many of the riders on his teams had already been part of consistent doping programmes  (many of the other names relating to those doping infringements are blacked out of the report), Armstrong has been personally blamed, for the choices of those in his team:

“ It was not enough that his teammates give maximum effort on the bike, he also required that they adhere to the doping program outlined for them or be replaced. Armstrong’s use of drugs was extensive, and the doping program on his team, designed in large part to benefit Armstrong, was massive and pervasive.”

In fact, the only rider known to have turned down doping on team US Postal did not leave for another team, he left cycling altogether. When he asked his teammate about doping he said, “You’ll have to make your own decision”. He took this to mean that all professional cycling would require doping (rather than just the US Postal team):

Furthermore, despite the USADA’s own evidence suggesting that Armstrong doped in response to being unable to keep up with other doped teams, and that US Postal was compared in its doping methods to the practice of other Spanish teams, he has been blamed for the pervasive doping culture in cycling:

“the era in professional cycling which he dominated as the patron of the pelaton was the dirtiest ever”

Finally, he has been accused of warping not only cycling, but sport as a whole:

‘Armstrong is a cheating b*****d and that’s all there is to it,’ said Thompson, the Olympic decathlon gold medallist of 1980 and 1984.

‘It’s a terrible situation for anyone who cares about sport in its purest sense. It’s been warped and damaged by a cheat.’

Olympic gold medallist and USA cycling coach Jamie Staff believes Lance Armstrong has been made a scapegoat over drug-taking in the sport, which was endemic for a generation. But he claims the sport is now cleaner.

Certainly in cycling at least there is clear evidence of a history of doping. Of 21 podium finishers in the Tour de France for the period 1999-2005, 20 have been directly linked to doping. For the longer period 1996-2010, it is 36 out of 45.

But it is not so clear that this culture has now disappeared. Frank Schleck, who came 3rd in the Tour de France GC in 2011 was unable to complete the race 2012 having been accused of doping after a positive diuretics test. In September of this year, AG2R La Mondiale team member Steve Houanard was banned for the use of EPO after he failed an out of competition test. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Nor will the testing catch all the drugs cheats. Armstrong never failed any of over 200 tests, and doubts have been cast on those that USADA has raised in its evidence. The 2001 EPO finding has been called ‘borderline’ by the head of the lab that found it . Though testing has improved, Armstrong was last accused of doping in 2009, yet EPO tests have been in place since 2000. There is no particular reason to think they are more effective now than in 2009, though they have had to modify them to catch new kinds of EPO. There is no test for autologous blood transfusions- though in 2011 they thought they would be able to get one for 2012 olympics.

One would expect that without doping, performance times would significantly reduce. Moller calculates that EPO use confers a 16% advantage. However, average speeds have not consistently dropped. The Vuelta average speed in 2012 was higher than 1999, 2004, and 2009- all when Armstrong was the “patron of the pelaton”. It was also higher then than in 2006, and in 2008 when Contador won the race after his implication in the Operacion Puerto scandal and before his doping conviction for Clenbuterol.

The Tour de France winner’s average speed in 2012 was faster than Lance Armstrong’s 2000 win and than the infamous 2007 Tour which was marred by a string of doping scandals. It has been raised on this blog that hill times in 2012 were slower than before. However, not only is this not evidence of no doping, since many of the benefits are in consistency and recovery rather than pure speed (see for example Mercier’s experiences in training where he could keep up for 2 days, but not for a full week of training ). In addition, a number of the Tour’s fastest climbers, Contador and the Schlecks (one Schleck throughout the race and the other part way through) were missing from 2012. Froome, a major climbing contender was deliberately slowing to wait for Wiggins. Without them, the major GC contenders did not have to push up the hills in the same way that they would have had to in previous years.

Individuals previously doping but now claiming to be riding clean have also not suffered apparent loss in form. Contador, won Vuelta 2012, his first major tour back. Vinokourov, banned in 2007 for blood doping (when he was only caught because he used someone else’s blood), won the Olympic Road Race in 2012, now aged 39.

It is a fact that it is nearly impossible to detect autologous blood doping. The cyclists who get caught use blood contaminated with steroids during training phase or someone else’s blood (Vinokourov).

Doping will never be eradicated from cycling. It may be reduced but the problem will remain. I have repeatedly argued that the solution is to relax the rigid controls on doping. That is the only effective way to reduce cheating.

Armstrong is a scapegoat – not for one generation, but for cycling. One wonders whether he will now turn on cycling itself and the UCI, pointing his finger at the all those who were involved. It is no wonder that now there are calls for an amnesty. I suggested that a while ago when there were the allegations against Armstrong. But now it is too late. Why should Armstrong suffer to be burned at the stake like a Salem witch when everyone else goes free? We shouldn’t be surprised if Armstrong goes ballistic, spilling the beans on a whole system that at best turned a blind eye to the doping it knew was going on.

The only good thing that can come from this whole affair is some honesty and open-mindedness. The only rational approach is to relax the absolute ban on doping in sport.


Permit Doping So We Can Monitor It, Room for Debate, New York Times

Posts on Sports from Julian Savulescu and other blog writers

Drugs in Sport resources, Practical Ethics

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11 Comment on this post

  1. The best point in here is that if Armstrong is as guilty as they claim, and he was tested over 200 times, that drug testing is a broken, unfair and farcical policy.

    I would also add that taking a hard line on Armstrong, who won 7 in a row, means that essentially the result of the race is erased from history for 7 years. What about the other winners in the three years before Armstrong’s domination? Riis admitted doping. Ullrich was found guilty of doping. Pantani was never caught but died of acute cocaine poisoning. That’s a full decade that has to be struck off the books. This is completely unprecedented in any sport – in the NHL and in the MLB they sometimes have had 1-year lockouts. There were the boycotted Olympics. But no sport has ever had its results suspended for a decade, and it’s hard to imagine how any sport could survive that.

    Clearly a doping amnesty would make more sense. But the UCI has backed itself into a corner. If they give an amnesty now, it looks like favouritism for Armstrong rather than a fair policy decision.

  2. This just makes me sick. This is such a travesty. Lance is no more guilty of doping than the rest of the cycling community. If he beat any tests then so did many, many others. Why just him? Was he too popular, doing too much good with Livestrong? Anyone who goes after a terminal disease and beats it, tries to help others do the same is doomed. He obviously wasn’t playing by THEIR rules and that is his undoing. Did not think they would try to totally destroy him though. They are not just out for his livelihood, now they want his life too. Stress is a killer. He beat cancer twice, optimism and determination were his weapons. They know that. It isn’t over yet.

  3. The stripping of Armstrongs 7 Tour titles and life time ban by the UCI on the findings of USADA’s investigations surely is one of the most bizzare and perplexing episodes in sport of all time, the public is being told by these bodies that this one man – given that he is portrayed as the mastermind, organiser, enforcer and pure beneficiary of this incredible Houdini like performance over the best part of a decade.

    Firstly, the undisputed evidence we have is that Armstrong passed over 200 random tests over this timeframe, performed by members of people who now state categorically he is guilty through other means of deception, ie, the auto – logous blood transfusion, something the USADA would have the general public believe is the equivalent of BGL test at the local mall, when in fact it is an extremely intricate procedure, that is time consuming in all aspects to be effective. Furthermore, he was responsible for enforcing his whole team to partake in this subtufuge. One would have to ask how it would at all be possible to facilitate this scheme without inspectors having the least bit of evidence or knowledge of its existence.

    Secondly. it is Armstrong who has become the pariah, and only through the testimony of others, no science or evidence collected in any form of due process,no one else has been announced as being banned, riders, doctors, medical assistants, teams, team bosses… no one, just Mr Armstrong , who as of today, due to his professional bodies and unfortnunately the media will now become the greatest drug cheat in sport off all time, at the moment the way he is being treated makes the East Germans of 1970’s an 80’s look like a group of amature placebo taking super athletes.

    Finally,for now, to the WADA, USADA and the UCI, not one iota of explanation of how you could be responsible for not being able to “vindicate” this man’s transgressions for year upon year, is there, or should there not be an investigation into your own inability into discovering this massive perpertration of cheating in your own sport, or, will it be Lance Armstrong did this and we, as a professional governing body of his sport are immune from any responsibility as to how it happened for so long, so blatantly right under our noses.

  4. I agree that the piling on of Armstrong has been pretty extreme and unfair. I think part of the reason for that is because Armstrong is the only cyclist that most people can name.

    Whether or not doping should be legal, or “controlled”, is a tough call. I have deep concerns about the concept of “something is bad, stupid, and illegal until a critical mass want to do it, and then it should be regulated”, which, in my opinion, get’s applied way too often. But with cycling, it may make sense. Malcolm Gladwell recently argued on a podcast on that, because cycling is only partly about human performance and partly about mechanical performance (in that better bikes make faster times), that doping could be considered part of the mechanical performance, that there might be a point where doping could be considered a part of that mechanical performance. Now, there’s obviously a limit to that, since there are definitely performance enhancing drugs that should be banned under all circumstances, but I think there is room for reasonable allowance, as long as every team had equal access to the same drugs.

  5. Generally I do not learn post on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very pressured me to try and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, quite nice post.

  6. In response to some of the above comments:

    1) Had Lance faced up to the fact that he has been caught out, co-operated with the USADA, and given a confession, he would have retained at least five of his TdF titles thanks to a statute of limitations. The USADA was only able to override the statute of limitations because LA refused to admit his offences.

    2) LA is not the only one to face sanction – all other cyclists that have been caught have been stripped of the title involved, and those that have confessed in full to doping have in some cases had titles stripped for which they had not been previously caught. The evidence against LA covers all of his TdF victories, so there is no conceivable reason not to strip him of those titles.

    3) The evidence: so many negative tests? Ask all the guys who have been caught how easy it is to beat the tests. LA had the advice of the best doping doctor available on how to beat the tests, and he followed that advice meticulously. Micro-dosing, knowing the doping officials wouldn’t show up between 10pm and 6am; a quick transfusion of saline to lower haematocrit back in the days before EPO was detectable; hiding from the officials and taking a whereabouts strike rather than a positive if they knew they were still hot… As for evidence collected by “due process”, is collecting witness testimony, cross-corroborating this testimony with numerous other witnesses and verifying this testimony through supporting documentary evidence of travel, payments and financial records not considered due process? Is providing witnesses with reduced sanctions in return for testimony not standard practice? Have there not been countless criminal trials carried by proof similarly free of “hard evidence”? When doping controls are by all accounts so patently easy to beat, what value can there be in a history of negatives? If this easy-to-beat standard is the only one you’ll accept, then you are essentially accepting a dirty sport.

    4) Allowing doping is not as straight-forward as it is made out to be. If allowed, it becomes and arms-race of who can develop the best product, who can use it best, who is willing to push the boundaries of safety the furthest… so then, you say, it must be regulated… but then what’s the difference between regulating the sport as it is and regulating to a different standard? Why would the different standard be easier to enforce than the current standard? As far as calling doping “mechanical performance”, that is complete rubbish – a mechanical performance advantage in bicycle technology or aerodynamics is small, the technology is obvious from visual observation, can be copied easily and relatively cheaply, and would apply equally to each competitor using it. This is not so with doping – drugs affect each athlete to differing degrees: for example, LA gained a large benefit from EPO and blood doping (as did Tyler Hamilton) because his natural peak haematocrit was relatively low. Other athletes have a naturally high haematocrit and therefore can only benefit a smaller amount. Doping doesn’t level the playing field, it moves the goalposts, makes them smaller and much more expensive to reach.

    Lastly, though somewhat tangential to the thread, Lance is by almost all accounts a monumental a$$hole and a shameless bully. I don’t recall a single person involved in cycling saying they like him. In fact, if you read Tyler Hamilton’s account there is a gentle almost-but-not-quite-implication (no doubt to avoid legal complications) in his account of his post-USPS days that Lance may have arranged the sabotage of Hamilton’s doctor’s blood store, thus eliminating in one fell swoop several of his main contenders for the tour… there is no outright accusation (and I wouldn’t rule out coincidence myself), but it was extremely “fortuitous”, being at a time when Hamilton and Ulrich were both looking better than ever.

    Bottom line is that Lance could have chosen to contribute to cleaning up cycling. He could have said “I had no choice if I wanted to win” and he’d have been right and he’d have got a lot of sympathy; he could have made a massive impact on doping at every level and saved many kids the hard choice of cheating or abandoning their dreams, but instead he chose to label the guys who worked their bums off to win him his tours as bitter, jealous liars. As far as I’m concerned he has earned his vilification and more…

    1. to Matt 10/23/12, 12:32 PM

      Thank you for your informed reply, especially the details you have specified in your 3rd point, the problem is,and i due apologize for my ignorance, is that none of these substantive points have been shared with the public through the mass media, when it is explained as to how it was possible for him to do this, the actual processes, the meticulous considerations in assuring there was due process involved it is more reasonable to understand the findings.Again I appreciate your time to set the record straight for me.

      With Sincerity and thanks


  7. I tried to post a comment yesterday and am wondering what happened to it. It contained a couple of links relevant to the discussion so am presuming that those may have got in the way of it being posted. In particular I wanted to call into question the idea that performances haven’t suffered in the face of a more stringent anti-doping regime in cycling. Taking just a few examples like this doesn’t account for other potentially confounding factors (race terrain, weather) and I think renders such comparisons less useful. There is quite a lot of material out there (the Science of Sport website is good though definitely coming from an anti-doping perspective). I know you’ve written the importance of considering the effectiveness of anti-doping procedures in the past and it is obviously a vital part of any case being made for a more relaxed regime. The second link I included was to a recent piece looking at some of your ideas on a different doping climate. While I don’t really concur with your opinion I do think that your paper with Bennet Foddy a few years back about the WADA code does draw out some very useful areas for consideration (what constitutes a level playing field, the safety problems raised by a prohibitive regime etc). For myself I can’t really get with sport where a legitimate route to success is for young athletes to push the limits of pharmaceutical assistance. That of course doesn’t mean that a regime focused on prohiubition and restriction is problem free. To just say that we don’t like something so ban it is a bit Peter Hitchens and I think it would be useful if WADA could take a more nuanced position than that.

    Looking at the comments and the question of Lance Armstrong. He is a fascinating figure and I think it’s correct to say that he has provoked very strong negative reactions. I’m rather in agreement with Matt (above) that these are not exactly to do with doping (or I’m afraid a desire to stop him doing good!) but rather to do with his behaviour in the face of accusations. He has clearly been foolishly dishonest and extremely aggressive towards any doubters. These have combined to undermined his rather heroic public brand and I think it’s unsurprising that he has provoked far greater ire than other dopers in the past.

  8. Doping in cycling hs been present since the beginnings of the Tour of France. Over the years the direct and indirect deaths due to doping have been both exploited and hidden, depending on who was involved.

    To use Armstrong as a whipping boy is an example of what happens when people who have never competed at the world level make rules for those who do. If you look at who Armstrong competed against during his career, most have been implicated in doping, hence he was still competing on an even playing field. The only reasonable solution to the problem is to allow blood and EPO doping and nothing else. These two forms of enhancement have not been shown to have adverse effects later in life.

    1. I think there are many who would dispute the “level playing field” argument. Pharmaceuticals affect individuals in different ways. (e.g. those with naturally lower red blood cell concentrations would improve a great deal more with EPO). This leads to a contest of training, fitness, biological potential, potential to improve with drugs and access to medical support and supplies. In the case of Armstrong and others over the last few years what they have done is clearly outside the rules as they were set. In terms of LA being a whipping boy I’ve argued (see the hyperlink on my name at the top of this comment) that there are a good mayny other reasons to condemn him that are tangential to doping.

      I think the author and Bennett Foddy have argued (interestingly) that there is a good case to frame the rules differently and make something like cycling about a contest of pharmaceutical or genetic innovation too. Think Formula 1 but with the body as the car. There is a something to be said for this for this though myself I would worry that, in practical terms, safety would be more compromised than it is already and also that inequalities would result.

      But hey it isn’t like safety under current codes (where rules are routinely violated and secrecy can contribute to risk) is necessarily great. There are definitely arguments to be balanced. Also sport is already affected by many inequalities. I’d suggest that legalised doping would exacerbate those though.

  9. The Salem “witches” were hanged (and one pressed to death), not burned. Burning witches was a phenomenon of continental Europe, not England nor its colonies.

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