Bob Ford: The two views of Lance Armstrong

Posted: August 25, 2012

It turned out that Lance Armstrong, having willed himself over so many obstacles for so many years, couldn't surmount the very last hill.

Getting past the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's investigation into a pattern of systematic cheating during Armstrong's cycling career was all that stood between the seven-time Tour de France champion and a clean sweep of his rivals both on the bike and off it.

Armstrong beat the hundreds of drug tests during his active career (or was clean) and avoided prosecution when a federal investigation was unexpectedly dropped earlier this year (or was found baseless) and has generally remained a hero in the unruly court of public opinion.

All that was left was brushing aside the USADA, the U.S.-based arm of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which tries to provide a clean playing field for the 68 international sports federations that are signatories to the WADA code, including everything from basketball to bridge.

Armstrong was investigated by USADA, an investigation that included interviews with many of his former teammates, and the conclusion of the investigation was that Armstrong's titles were gained with help from a careful and pervasive doping program. USADA issued a lifetime ban and invited Armstrong to enter an arbitration hearing process if he chose to contest the findings. He tried an end run by challenging USADA's jurisdiction in U.S. District Court and when that failed, he gave up the fight.

Armstrong said he was tired of all this and, on that point if nothing else, he has company. Why he wasn't tired of it last week when he attempted to hijack the process by taking the USADA to court is a question worth asking, too, but that answer, like those to other questions regarding Armstrong, will always be shrouded in the sort of mist that hangs on the highest summits even in the middle of summer.

"There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough.' For me, that time is now," Armstrong said.

For some, Armstrong will remain an inspiration for his comeback from the cancer that nearly killed him and the money raised by his Livestrong Foundation to fight the disease. From that perspective, he is a champion who perhaps cut a few corners just to stay competitive in a very dirty sport.

For others, particularly those who know how difficult it would be to win seven straight Tour de France titles, Armstrong was the king of manipulating the system. The U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams for which he won the Tours were all very well funded, run with a dominating hand by Armstrong and team director Johan Bruyneel, and capable of devising a scientific program that was smart enough to keep the team leader one step ahead of the testing program as well as several minutes ahead of his competitors.

Those two points of view will never be reconciled. There is too much doping fatigue among the sporting public, and too much division over whether any of it still matters. Armstrong can call the USADA investigation "an unconstitutional witch hunt," when it is neither, and his supporters will agree and his detractors will not.

"Lance has never withdrawn from a fair fight," said Bruyneel, who, as of now, is contesting his own ban and appears ready to enter the arbitration process. If Bruyneel, whose livelihood is still in the sport, follows through, then the USADA case that would have been brought against Armstrong will be put forward. That would be interesting and it could change a few minds.

Although a witness list has never been made public, it is likely that former teammates Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie would be among those taking the stand. Those four removed themselves from consideration from this year's Olympic cycling team, with the assumption being that USA Cycling did not want to be represented by athletes who were about to confess to past doping. Hincapie, who is retiring next season, competed in five Olympics and previously said he would love to take part in a sixth.

Those riders, along with Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, whose cooperations have been acknowledged, knew the inner workings of the Armstrong teams. Armstrong's decision to end the process and accept the competition ban (he has been training for professional triathlons) prevents that set of disclosures for the time being.

As for losing the Tour titles, cycling is left with some interesting decisions. With the exception of the third-place rider in 1999 (Fernando Escartin), every competitor who stood on a lower step of the Tour podium during Armstrong's reign from 1999 to 2005 was either banned from the sport for doping, later admitted to doping or was cleared after investigation.

It seems preposterous that Jan Ullrich, who was banned in 2006, will be declared the winner in 2000, 2001 and 2003, and the same goes for the rogue's gallery that includes Alexander Vinokourov, Ivan Basso, Joseba Beloki and Andreas Kloden. If Armstrong was a sinner, he wasn't exactly surrounded by saints.

The International Cycling Union, which has its own well-documented conflicts of interest in this case, would hardly want its most prestigious event to have a seven-year erasure mark, but there doesn't seem to be a way to avoid it.

Yes, it is a mess, but it isn't "nonsense," as Armstrong suggests. This is the toxic waste left on the shoreline after the tide recedes. Someone has to clean it up, and that task fell to the USADA. Pretending it isn't there might make for a prettier story, but it solves nothing.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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