Lance Armstrong and drugs

TdF podium

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.

9 comments for “Lance Armstrong and drugs

  1. August 26, 2012 at 19:24

    If Armstrong passed numerous drug tests but is still deemed guilty, then the testing protocols have an extraordinarily low detection capability. Circumstantial evidence seems to be seen as more reliable.

    So what are we to make of the Olympics if drug testing protocols can be so ineffective? It’s no good saying that Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen passed all her drug tests if, as the Armstrong case seems to suggest, the protocols have such a low success rate.

  2. August 26, 2012 at 20:02

    And where does that leave Bradley?

  3. haiku
    August 26, 2012 at 20:04

    I have been thinking long & hard on the Lance Armstrong saga.

    The fact that he he has chosen to no longer defend himself has little – or nothing – to do with guilt.

    Rather it is financially prudent: he is fighting officials with unlimited – other people’s – financial resources.

    So he has chosen to stand down – much as many of the companies in the USA do – where it is cheaper to pay a nuisance claim than it is to litigate.

    Even if he does win he will be in for a legal bill in probably well in excess of $1 million. So best cut losses …

    In truth, Lance has yet to be found guilty of anything – other than winning.

    However, this fact will serve only to further enrage the vociferous minority, who firmly believe that they must be right ‘cos they are squealing louder …

    And that includes his competitors & team mates: I mean, have you ever met a top-level athlete that will willingly admit that there is any other that can best him ?

    If anything it is professional sport that should be put on trial.

    The prices that are being paid for professional athletes beggars the mind: no wonder politicians feel cheated.

    So my suggestion is as for prostitution: legalise drug-taking in sport.

    It will save a fcuking fortune in administrators and unnecessary drug tests, close down a number of specialist laboratories (mostly owned by cronies) and, with any kind of luck, severely curtail the lives of the professionals.

    Which will, in time, lead to greater employment possibilities for nascent pro’s as they rise to fill the gaps …

  4. Dave
    August 27, 2012 at 01:09

    I cannot see what is so complicated about this testing. If the test of the day fails to detect any drug taking then the matter is resolved and no drugs have been taken. If new tests, years down the track, indicate that a drug was taken then that is an interesting addendum to history and nothing more.

    The fact that Armstrong has chosen not to fight the accusations should not be seen as an admission of guilt as some have been keen to portray.

    Perhaps we should have a class or category for drug takers to gain an understanding of the capabilities and problems associated with using the various drugs.

  5. wiggiatlarge
    August 27, 2012 at 09:40

    A K Hart to an extent you are correct but since the Armstrong era the testing procedures have upped their game and the detection rate has increased to the extent that very minor infringements are now revealed and punished, the problem lies with EPO and its varietals, there has obviously to be a limit that can be judged against as normal in the blood, athletes can because of increasing skill in administration use blood boosters to ensure that they are on the limit so to speak but not illegal that itself can be tested against as all cyclists have a ‘passport’ that gives through regular testing a picture through the year of what is normal for that particular rider and even the masking agents are now revealed so it is very difficult to cheat.

    Haiku you are correct in pointing out that Armstrong may have other reasons for not wanting to continue this saga, nonetheless the team mates etc who may or may not have it in for him (and I think I covered that in the article) are in numbers that would suggest drug taking took place his former adversary Jan Ullrich when asked his opinion on what has happened having three times finished runner up to Armstrong and himself banned for doping said ‘he wasn’t bothered by it’ it was the norm for the time.

    You have to look at the fact that Armstrong won against some riders who were very close on ability to himself nearly all failed drug tests and were banned for Armstrong to have beaten them clean would by any definition been impossible the difference between top athletes is less than one percent drugs can boost that by ten percent (rough figures) so you can make your own mind up.

    Dave retrospective drug tests are no different than the use say of advanced retrospective DNA testing in law, would you cancel that out ?

    The argument that drug taking should be allowed is a fair point as when I was riding we all knew that the pro riders took drugs and it was ever thus it wasn’t illegal then , the problem is that as indicated it reached new levels in the late eighties nineties with juveniles being given drugs would any of you think that the right path to take ?

    I would never state that all is now ‘clean’ but that is not the problem the elephant in the room is gene technology no one knows how far down the line this really is rumours in some quarters say it is already on the agenda in some nations the BMJ article link spells out that and all the consequences as for Armstrong he always invoked exstreme feelings for a number of reasons whatever his TDF wins are still amazing giving or in spite of his background.

  6. haiku
    August 27, 2012 at 17:52

    >> juveniles being given drugs

    In sports such as rugby / American football – where brawn is preferable – drugs are available to juveniles, especially when it is the parents pushing their kids.

    Is it right ? Hell no.

    But when every newspaper article on Man.United invariably mentions the price-tickets of the team, and shows team members purchasing cars that cost more than the average house, are you going to stop it ? Hell no.

    As for Lance: he has probably done more for cycling than his next twenty competitors combined.

    Has he taken drugs ?: not proven, but then in today’s world actual proof is so yesterday, a quaint hangover from times of yore.

    Has he pissed off some nonentities (aka ‘officials’): assuredly, and for pricking those nonentity bubbles he will pay …

  7. August 28, 2012 at 13:50

    Over 500 drug tests passed : check

    Zero drug tests failed : check (although 1 was in 1997 that test was thrown out due to lab problems and repeat test was passed).

    Investigation ongoing since 1997 or so and countless ‘organizations’ have passed the baton to try to get a conviction; is it any wonder that Lance finally said no mas?

  8. wiggiatlarge
    August 28, 2012 at 16:49

    I have no personal ‘down’ on Armstrong I think I made that quite clear as I hope I did with the salient points, Armstrong has always created a divided opinion on what or may not have gone on , the problem with many of his supporters is that his conquest of cancer and his amazing climb back to the top in his sport blinkers many to the wider view not unlike many football supporters, the never tested positive but still found guilty by association or witnesses is not unique to him or cycling Marion Jones comes to mind, his tour record is what it is the best regardless.
    ‘As for Lance: he has probably done more for cycling than his next twenty competitors combined’.
    In what way, his team mates did well out of him , if you mean bringing cycling to a wider audience eg USA yes he did but arguably Greg Le Mond did that before Lance, better rider conditions in the peloton, no Laurent Fignon was responsible for that.
    He is also through his single minded pursuit of one event, yes it is the biggest , responsible in part for the dilution of all the fields now entered for anything else in particular the single day classics that used to field all the best riders but are now in many cases a shadow of themselves as every body is taking the TDF route because of the commercial exposure , sure that’s the way of the world at this time but as an ex rider to see the Paris Roubaix as this year with a field devoid of most of the stars is not what I and many others want to see and whether you or any one else likes it or not Lance unwillingly was part of that.
    Just one point on the drugs issue do you really want a free for all that during the 80s 90s resulted in the deaths of at least twenty riders whos hearts stopped in the night because the same heart couldn’t cope with the thickened blood bought about by the use of EPO, is that what you really want.

  9. haiku
    August 28, 2012 at 17:19

    My personal preference is no drugs in sports.

    Ditto none of the ludicrous sums of money that they are throwing at professional athletes.

    That said, I have more chance of winning the lottery three times in a row than a return to no drugs in sports – if, indeed, that state ever existed.

    So why bother to legislate when even smarter [i.e. more difficult to detect] drugs are arriving each and every day ?

    It is the individual’s choice as to whether or not they will partake, much the same smoking or driving drunk.

    At least – with any bit of luck – they won’t take others with them as they could driving under the influence.

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