The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) delivered a definitive indictment to the world on Wednesday morning with the release of its reasoned decision regarding seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. In the 1,000-plus page document sent to the International Cycling Union and the World Anti-Doping agency, USADA found Armstrong guilty of using of performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career and of playing a central role in enforcing a systematic doping program on the U.S. Postal team.
USADA obtained sworn testimony from over two dozen witnesses to the cheating that took place on Armstrong’s team between 1999 and 2005, including 11 former teammates, some of whom had never before admitted to doping. The agency also compiled a comprehensive set of bank statements and emails linking Armstrong to Italian physician Michele Ferrari, who was banned from cycling in 2010 for involvement numerous anti-doping violations.
In short, USADA accomplished what no courtroom, journalist, lab technician or solitary confessor had been able to do in the 13 years since Armstrong began his storied comeback from cancer and ascent into the cycling stratosphere, and found compelling evidence demonstrating that the performances that turned Armstrong a globally recognized sporting icon were made possible by cheating.
Armstrong has chosen not to contest USADA’s charges in an arbitration hearing, and is publicly acting as though nothing has happened since Wednesday morning. He tweeted on Wednesday night that he was “Hanging with my family, unaffected, and thinking about this,” with a link to Livestrong’s 15-year-anniversary celebration. Nike, which has helped Livestrong raise millions of dollars for cancer research, is publicly standing by Armstrong and his foundation in spite of the volume of evidence against the cyclist.
VeloNews predicts that the fallout from USADA’s decision in the sport of cycling will be far-reaching and gradually realized. For athletes and fans of all sports who long held onto belief in his innocence, the report has already forced a wake-up to the reality of cheating in athletics. It’s unclear whether there will be any long-lasting effects on the Livestrong Foundation.
To some of North America’s best past and present cross-country skiers, Wednesday’s decision is simply long-overdue proof for their belief that Armstrong’s winning streak exceeded what the unaided human body was capable of. The UCI and World Anti-Doping Agency have yet to respond to the decision, but for these athletes the real story is already USADA’s triumph in proving Armstrong’s doping violations.
“I feel some vindication on behalf of USADA,” said two-time Olympian and University of Vermont assistant coach Andrew Johnson. “I’m happy and proud of their work. I think their ability to do in this case what other agencies haven’t been able to do or haven’t been interested in doing speaks volumes about our anti-doping movement in the U.S. and its ability to work on behalf of athletes. That’s what I’m excited about. We have a system that is working, even if it’s after the fact and has taken too long.”
While there was cause for celebration in USADA’s achievement, there is also no ignoring the fact that Armstrong’s fall from grace leaves a permanent blight on cycling and, to some degree, American sports.
“Most people who are involved in sport know how things work and have known of [Armstrong’s] guilt for a long time,” said U.S. Ski Team veteran Kris Freeman. “It’s an embarrassment for all American athletes. He’s one of the most mainstream athletes out there and what he has done is an embarrassment to just about every sport in the country.”
Freeman says that he was once a fan of Lance and cycling, but has had to stop watching races like the Tour de France because it was clear to him that all of the top riders were cheating.
“I’m pretty disappointed. I met Lance before my 2002 Olympics. I took a picture with him; I used to have a poster of him on my wall. To have someone that once inspired you turn out to be a complete fraud is very disappointing,” he said.
The Armstrong case presents every sport the opportunity to examine drug use and the anti-doping movement. Justin Wadsworth, who before becoming the head coach of the Canadian national team competed on the World Cup and in three Olympics for the U.S., sees similarities between the way Armstrong’s performances and those of cheating skiers have stood out over the years: they were so abnormally good they were inherently suspect.
“Of course these guys doped,” Wadsworth said. “When you’re at athlete at a high level, and of course I’ve never won World Cups, but you just know…what’s physically possible when you ski or bike or run… In a case like Lance it was obvious, and [in skiing] with Johann Muehlegg and the Russian women doping has been there and all of us have known it.”
Doping has certainly been present in skiing. Recent examples include Estonia’s Andrus Veerpalu, who was caught cheating in 2011, Juha Lalluka (FIN), who tested positive for human growth hormone in the same year, and the 20 Russian athletes who received bans for doping rules violations between 2007 and 2010. In the women’s Olympic 5 k in 2002, initial winner Olga Danilova and runner-up Larissa Lazutina were found guilty of doping well after the Games. Beckie Scott (CAN), Wadsworth’s wife, was awarded the gold medal over two years after the race.
No new doping scandals developed last winter, but Freeman and Wadsworth both think that the available testing methods are a step behind the cheating — “simply saying you haven’t tested positive doesn’t really mean anything any more,” Freeman said. They believe doping is still present on the World Cup, if to a lesser extent.
“I don’t believe there’s doping going on in the U.S., but in the international field I believe there’s a lot of doping going on,” he said. Freeman declined to mention any athletes by name.
“I’ve been beaten by suspected dopers in many races and it’s always frustrating. But it’s just a part of it,” he said. “And I’ve seen that people that I truly believe are clean [are winning] World Cups all the time, so it’s very possible to be the best in the world even when people are cheating. There are so many things that go into our sport. You can’t dope technique. You can’t dope ski feel. That’s one of the very cool things about our sport.”
Wadsworth, too, thinks that cross-country skiing has yet to achieve complete purity. He also believes that the sport is cleaner now than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, pointing to greater variation amongst athletes achieving top results from week to week as proof. Canada’s own success in recent years, Wadsworth says, has been drug-free, demonstrating that wins like Devon Kershaw’s and Alex Harvey’s are attainable without doping.
“Clean teams like ours can finally really reap the reward of doing things the right way, with hard work,” Wadsworth said. “I think North Americans for a long time got the short end of the stick because of doping…[so] it’s good to see it’s cleaning up.”
Ultimately, Wadsworth and other coaches hope that when athletes get caught cheating it lets others who want to play by the rules know that they have a shot at winning.
“I would hope that it would deter other people from [cheating] in the future and give the younger people a greater chance to actually succeed when they do compete,” said University of Vermont head coach Pat Weaver. “I hope the fact that people dope doesn’t deter people. If you love to compete, that should be the main force behind why you’re doing it, and the end result is the end result. The process is just as important as the end result.”
Weaver went to the Olympics for the U.S. in 1998 and 2002. In the time that he’s been a coach at UVM he has often been asked by his athletes for his opinion on Armstrong’s career: was it clean or not?
“I do remember seeing disappointment on the athlete’s faces when I said that he doped,” Weaver said. “You could see they wanted to believe that Lance could do this clean, that he was this hero… It’s hard to say to some athletes who maybe idolize Lance, but at the same time it’s not something I could lie about.”
That fans had to wonder about Armstrong long before evidence came out against him is, for Wadsworth, representative of what it means to care about sports in 2012: that doubt might be a part of things from now on.
“I never take away from clean performances by special individuals, because those are the things that make sport special,” he said. “[But] when you see something really amazing, you think, ‘Is that clean or not clean?’ Which is kind of sad. I do the same thing: I went to the London Olympics this summer and saw some amazing performances in sports where I don’t really know the background, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Is this a clean performance?’ It’s sad when you’re at that point, but that’s where we are.”
For athletes like Freeman, the Armstrong saga reinforces his personal commitment to racing clean.
“I know that I could never live with myself if I doped, and I know that no one on my team could ever live with themselves if they doped,” he said.
This is all athletes can personally control when it comes to the purity of their sport: their own actions.
“The biggest thing an athlete can do is start saying ‘I’m clean,’ and being proactive in going along with the testing,” Wadsworth said. “Hopefully the sport will clean up in the long run.”