The statement issued by the USAD on Lance Armstrong’s ongoing denial of drug taking is another step along the road to eliminate or attempt to eliminate drug cheats from the sport.
It could signal the start of a new era, one already to a large degree started.
Armstrong is interesting as he has never failed a drugs test and to many, this makes their ‘hero’ the subject of a witch hunt, something Armstrong himself has referred to on many occasions in recent times.
The ongoing saga has done nothing for the sport but the drawn out inquiries have inevitably been hampered to a degree by the status Armstrong holds in the sport and of course the bottom line in all this is – is he guilty?
His decline to carry on defending himself could be taken as giving in to an inevitable guilty verdict should he appear and defend himself against what would appear to be an ever increasing list of witnesses many ex team mates who have stated they saw him taking drugs and evidence of their presence.
Armstrong would and has said that certain members of his teams have an axe to grind, having themselves been found guilty of doping, but then, it does not seem feasible that so many would perjure themselves against a man who was largely responsible for better conditions and pay for those who chose to ride with him and the success and recognition that came with it.
Armstrong post cancer – and that story is one you can only admire – was a very different rider to the young man who won the world road race championship in 1993 and rode with some success in the single day classics and other events until the onset of cancer in ’96.
He emerged as someone determined to win the TDF and developed a strategy that would bring this about, his shape changed, he lost weight, became leaner more powerful and all his season was dedicated to arriving at this one event – the biggest prize in cycling in the best condition and best prepared having spent weeks riding the course again and again in preparation.
So he knew the areas he would be strong in and where and when he could attack to his maximum advantage, all the other events that had previously ridden went to wall or were used as a training build up for the TDF.
The cynics would say – and they would have a point from past drug cheats – that this lack of competitive riding outside the TDF gave the opportunity to use drugs and build up the oxygen retaining elements in the blood. After all, many previous Eastern European athletes, in all sports, rarely competed outside major championships and were rarely tested and even before drugs became illegal Lasse Viren the Finnish runner who won two gold medals at the ’72 and ’76 Olympics rarely competed and later was found to be blood doping.
So none of this is new, nor is the fact that many athletes have undoubtedly ‘got away with it’ through a combination of poor early testing techniques and latterly the use of ever more sophisticated masking agents.
All of this has to be taken into account when judging Armstrong and cycling has another problem in that drug taking has been there almost since the sport began.
It started with the very early six day races that were held on indoor and outdoor board tracks in the USA and soon after Europe. These races that started with solo riders before becoming a team event were the sporting parallel to the marathon dances in the depression they carried on even when riders could no longer keep awake, so stimulants in their crudest form – caffeine and alcohol – were used to stay awake.
By the time the twenties came along, hard drugs were in use – no amphetamines or EPO then – and by the end of WWII, drugs were the norm for top flite pro cyclists.
It was even openly discussed, as here in a television interview with the great Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi.
Coppi was often said to have introduced “modern” methods to cycling, particularly in his diet. Gino Bartali established that some of those methods included taking drugs, which were not then against the rules.
Bartali and Coppi appeared on television revues and sang together, Bartali singing about “The drugs you used to take” as he looked at Coppi. Coppi spoke of the subject in a television interview:
Question: Do cyclists take la bomba
Answer: Yes, and those who claim otherwise, it’s not worth talking to them about cycling.
Question: And you, did you take la bomba?
Answer: Yes. Whenever it was necessary.
Question: And when was it necessary?
Answer: Almost all the time! [And here]
Coppi “set the pace” in drug-taking, said his contemporary. The Dutchman. [And here] said Coppi was “the first I knew who took drugs. That didn’t stop Coppi’s protesting against others using it. He told René de Latour:
“What is the good of having world champions if those boys are worn out before turning professional?
Maybe the officials are proud to come back with a rainbow jersey, but if this done at the expense of the boys’ futures, then I say it’s wrong. Do you think it normal that our best amateurs become nothing but ‘gregari‘?”
Coppi named four riders among the best in the world as amateurs but who failed as professionals despite predictions made for them. “If they sue me for defamation,” he said, “all the better. The facts will be brought to light and this may mean a change in our methods.”
By the time the ’80s were upon us, the problem with the advent of EPO and other blood boosting measures became not only the standard way to go not only for the elite riders but almost anyone who wanted to take that route.
A British world pro pursuit champion in ’89, Colin Sturgess, signed for a French road team the following year and as he says ‘the contract had a deduction built in that was for medical supplies ie the supply of EPO. I myself, when talking to an up and coming rider who joined an Italian team in the early nineties, told me how he could not believe the extent of usage of the drug in that country – even 14 year old amateurs were taking it !
It had to change and WADA and the independent agencies started to make inroads into the problem but it has taken a long time and many a slab has been lifted to discover even more abuse in the process.
Individual countries have also hindered the advance of testing with both denial applied to their athletes and even when failed athletes have been found guilty, they have used their powers to reduce the punishment or override the decision in some measure.
The Spanish have been the worst offenders in Europe. The Puerto affair that was the discovery of files from Fuentes lab dealing with athletes, originally implicated around 250 athletes from various sports including tennis and football but only a few cyclists were ever bought to book and nearly all of them had the cases dropped.
Fuentes himself said he could not understand why only cyclists were exposed and where were the other sportsmen – the prosecutors claimed only cyclists were on the list ?
All of this brings us back up to the Armstrong era. Anyone who follows the TDF cannot help but notice the decline from, say, five years ago in the type of attacks going on in the race, the magical recoveries after a day of suffering in the mountains when the following day a miracle would occur and the same rider would be attacking for a win.
Those days have disappeared but this was common in the Armstrong – Ullrich duels of the nineties, so I think we are winning. Some, by the nature and history of the sport will chance their arm but they are getting caught.
The future, the sophistication of the users and testers in the drugs and masking agents is currently I believe in favor of the testers. It costs a small fortune for a race like the TDF but it is working.
The worry is from a totally new angle. If this gene technology
takes hold and the detection or proof is impossible, all athletics is doomed.