Richard Browne considers what Lance Armstrong’s latest move means for him, le Tour de France and the sport of cycling.
Late last night, one of cycling’s greatest champions ended his fight against those who seek to dethrone him.
Lance Armstrong’s statement began with the words: “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now.”
He goes on: “I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999. Over the past three years, I have been subjected to a two-year federal criminal investigation followed by Travis Tygart’s unconstitutional witch hunt. The toll this has taken on my family, and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense.”
The full statement is here. In short, the 40-year-old Texan maintains his innocence, defiant against the drug charges pressed by the US anti-doping agency (USADA) with increasing urgency over the last few months, but he will no longer fight those charges.
USADA now intends to ban Armstrong from cycling for life and – more importantly – strip him of his seven Tour de France titles. Although Armstrong disputes that they have the power to do so (cue yet more legal wrangling), the agency will be determined to send out a very strong message.
My feelings on this are about as mixed up as the case itself. I began watching le Tour during Armstrong’s final year of victory, 2005 (he then retired, returned in 2008 and retired again in 2010).
I was instantly taken by the grandeur of the man, his almost mythical background (recovery from near-mortal cancer to win the greatest endurance event on earth more times than any other) and the way he eased into the yellow jersey and strangled the life out of his competition. Not too dissimilar to Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky at the 2012 Tour.
Sadly, all of that is irrelevant if the USADA claims are true. Armstrong has been presented as a cheat and, worse, the ringleader of a team that promoted blood doping to boost performance. In doing so, he cheated le Tour of worthy champions for seven years and caused untold damage to the event and cycling in general – the fight between dopers and testers continues.
Armstrong may have attempted to draw a line under the whole business – and accusers will say this proves his guilt, and he is looking to minimise his losses before more evidence against him is revealed – but it is by no means finished.
He has attempted to take the moral high ground here, decrying the effects of the USADA “witch hunt” on his family and charity work. But – even though a large part of me prays that he is innocent – he has essentially admitted defeat.
That charity work, via the Lance Armstrong Foundation, cannot fail to be tarnished by the USADA accusations and now inevitable punishment. For all that it has achieved, the idea that it has been created and promoted by a cheat is hard to take. Are there lies and malpractice within that ‘team’ as well?
For le Tour, more implications. If the decision is made to relieve Armstrong of his seven titles, that effectively means seven years of Tour history are written out.
When Alberto Contador was given a drugs ban in 2011, his 2010 Tour de France victory was given to Andy Schleck, who finished second in that year’s race. But that seems unlikely to happen in this case.
For the years 1999-2005 had drug cheats aplenty. It would hardly be a stretch of the imagination to believe that there were more cheating cyclists than clean ones. And so many of the men who stood alongside Armstrong on the podiums in Paris during that time were doping or have since been caught out and punished.
Hence Armstrong’s fall will probably result in seven ‘blank’ years of Tour history. Perhaps that would be fitting. For if Armstrong is a greater cheat than champion, those seven years represent a period when Tour authorities were beaten by the cheats.
That fight goes on. A key part of Armstrong’s defence has been the fact that he never actually failed a drugs test. There remain means of blood doping (explained here) that are as yet undetectable. Cycling remains populated by drug cheats.
That is why USADA have pursued this case so vigorously. No man is greater than his sport. Armstrong amazed and inspired a generation of cyclists and cycling fans, but cycling cannot recover from its darkest times when the man who increasingly looks like the arch-perpetrator holds his titles and the right to race.
Neither this case, nor the fight against doping in cycling and other sports, is anywhere close to “finished”.