"What do you think about Lance?"
I was asked that a few times in the immediate hours following the news that Lance Armstrong was dropping his case against the USADA and would be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. So I decided to answer that question in this space. At the very least, it should cut down on the number of tweets and text messages I have to respond to.
First off, what happened? In not-so-short: after two years, federal prosecutors dropped their doping investigation of Armstrong in February, with no charges filed. But then in June, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency picked up where they left off, accusing Armstrong of using EPO, blood doping, testosterone, corticosteroids, and masking agents, and claiming they had blood samples from 2009 and 2010 that were "fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions."
Armstrong responded with the accusation that the USADA was violating their own rules while one of the doctors implicated in case denied the claims, saying, "These charges are the same as those which the Justice Department decided not to pursue after a two-year investigation." Lance filed a lawsuit against the USADA on July 9 ... but it was thrown out by a judge the same day. So Armstrong filed another lawsuit the very next day ... but that was thrown out on August 20. (It should be noted here that the judge who threw out the lawsuit also was suspicious of the USADA, saying, "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that USADA is motivated more by politics and a desire for media attention than faithful adherence to its obligations ...")
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.
Then on Friday, the USADA made it official: despite never showing any physical evidence, securing testimonies of other riders in exchange for lessened penalties -- some of whom had personal vendettas against Armstrong -- and arguably not really having the jurisdiction to do so, they stripped Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and banned him for life (he was already retired from cycling, but sure, ok, whatever). (Can you tell whose side I'm on?)
So what's this all mean? In short: nothing.
You, likely, had already made up your mind as to whether or not Lance cheated his way to seven Tour wins long before any charges were brought forth by the USADA. Their ruling likely will not change your thinking. Either you always thought he was doping and now have your proof. "Proof." Or you side with Lance, think the USADA was on an "unconstitutional witch hunt" and know what you saw: him going up the Alps and through France faster than anyone else. Or, perhaps even more likely, you think he cheated, but so what -- have you tried riding a bike over 100 miles every day for three weeks?
As I mentioned, I've been asked for my opinion on all this a few times already. As a cycling enthusiast and a Lance supporter, my friends and co-workers have been curious to know what I think about all this. So here's my answer: This is stupid.
The USADA's investigation, and subsequent penalties, accomplishes absolutely nothing. Like I said, you've already made up your mind on Lance at this point -- the USADA's decision on a race that happened 13 years ago in unlikely to change your opinion.
So then what's the point of the USADA taking away his seven Tours? Great question! Are they trying to "clean up" an infamously dirty sport? Stripping Lance's wins does not accomplish that. Not even close. In cycling, when the winner loses his title, they award the victory to the second-place finisher. So let's take a look at the runner-ups in the Tour de France's in question:
- Alex Zülle - 1999 runner-up. Part of the Festina affair, a doping scandal surrounding the 1998 Tour de France. He admitted to taking EPO (but only to make his sponsors happy, he said).
- Jan Ullrich - 2000, 2001 and 2003 runner-up. He was banned from the Tour in 2006 amid doping speculation, and was stripped of his 2005 third-place finish as a result. Was named in the Operación Puerto (Operation Mountain Pass) case, a doping network run by Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. In 2012, Ullrich admitted to working with Dr. Fuentes, saying it was a mistake.
- Joseba Beloki - 2002 runner-up. Implicated in the 2006 Operación Puerto doping case (though was later cleared).
- Andreas Klöden - 2004 runner-up. Allegedly visited the Freiburg University Clinic during the 2006 Tour de France for an illegal blood transfusion.
- Ivan Basso - 2005 runner-up. - Involved in the Operación Puerto doping case, banned two years for "attempted doping." He eventually "widely acknowledged his responsibilities" in connection with Operation Puerto and offered "full cooperation."
Well then! And this of course doesn't include Alberto Contador, the 2007 and 2009 winner, who was stripped of his 2010 title after he was found guilty of doping. That 2010 title then went to Andy Schleck ... whose brother, Frank, found himself in his own doping controversy during this year's Tour. So, worst-case scenario in all this, it would seem, is that Armstrong was doping, but still beat everyone else who was doping, because everyone was doped to the gills. Cycling!
The USADA decision does not change what happened 13 years ago. It doesn't help clean up cycling. It does little more than show that they are capable of making an example out of a cheater. And either you see Lance's decision as him finally being fed-up with fighting the charges, or you see it as an admission of guilt. (Guess which side the chief of the World Anti-Doping Agency is on?)
The ruling from USADA carries with it little weight, because the court of public opinion has already ruled on Lance Armstrong.