What Skiing Can Take Away from Armstrong Saga

Audrey ManganOctober 12, 201210
Lance Armstrong and Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel in 2009. Photo: Paul Coster/Flickr Creative Commons.

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.”

Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

Loading Facebook Comments ...


  • chadsalmela

    October 12, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Bravo! Great, necessary, and relevant perspectives.

  • freeheels

    October 12, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    The general media is painting LA as the sole reason bike riders’ doped. That’s just plain nonsense. The whole peloton was and is probably still doped. USPS just was the best at the game during the time. Can’t blame them. It’s the fault of the system and the lack of enforcement by UCI and WADA. Knowing the Hincapie doped his whole career is gut wrenching. And his press release was almost laughable….more like pathetic.
    It’s niave to think it’s cleaner than before. Testing will always be behind what’s available in anti detection methods and new drugs.
    Contrary to the believe that there’s greater variation in winners and losers, it’s my opinion there’s anything but. For the past few seasons on of three women win every weekend making it not very interesting to follow. Did anybody watch the Tour? Sky destroyed the race and watching a 6’2″ timetrialest climb with the best was suspect.
    For the people who love these endurance sport it sure has been a wild few days. Thanks for weighing in with an article.

  • campirecord

    October 12, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    The only difference being that you needed to dope to pull Lance or you were history. Think about Simeoni or Basson or anyone who were outspoken on drug use. Lancestrong would go down hard on them. Think about the influence he had on US cycling, he controlled cycling like no one else. http://dimspace.co.uk/la/ArmstrongBusinessConnections1707.pdf
    Read the USADA report, you will see a much different color

    What I think we fail to talk about here, is how a Pan e Agua skier might survive a event such as the Tour de Ski. Clean skiers can find variations of excellence but doping is mostly a tool for fast recovery and harder training. My worries is that 11-14 day long even such as the Tour de Ski including the last mountain top finish is a perfect recipee to bring back massive doping in xc-ski, that would be a shame…

  • Tim Kelley

    October 12, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    From reading the USADA document and Hamilton’s story it seems that doping is an expensive pursuit, it can cost many tens of thousands of dollars. 50K plus a year (according to Hamilton) for drugs and doctors to help you cheat seems to be an amount that is out of reach for most Nordic skiers. So the fact that most Nordic ski racers struggle financially can actually be a good thing. The money for doping is likely not there for most xc ski racers (unless a well-funded team or NGB steps in).

    Another issue that came out of this saga is that Armstrong and teammates seemed to easily avoid USADA monitors when they came looking for them. Yet the USADA didn’t press them on this practice. If the USADA was more vigilant they could likely have had positive out-of-competition tests on Armstrong years ago. Makes you wonder how lax drug monitoring operations are in other countries.

  • kwikgren

    October 13, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Tim, I was thinking the other way on this, that drug monitoring operations could be absolutely dialed on well-funded teams to see what you can get away with and how to get away with it.

    The dirty little secret is that doping has been around for a long, long time. Maybe in skiing and cycling, it’s hush, hush, but in weight training circles and forums it’s openly disscussed and debated. I’m guessing almost every gym in the country has someone hanging around that knows how to “get some juice”. The fact that doping has trickled all the way down to the junior high school level is pretty sad. Even worse, oftentimes the enablers are adults.

    As far as the cost of doping, you can get 100,000 IU of Recombinant Human Erythropoietin for $310 at Steroid OnLine Shop.com. Now I pity anyone who thinks that sport performance is so important that they are willing to shoot themselves up with cheap Chinese EPO, but it’s readily available. I also know that racers even at the wannabe level are spending way more than that on a few vials of high end ski wax.

    I have no intention to judge others, but athletes that are doping may get more than they bargained for in the long run. And my hats off to those athletes of the past and today who are willing and able to do it the hard way, regardless of whether or not they “win”.

    An interesting spin on this was I quote I read, where Bode Miller said he thought that EPO should be allowed in downhill racing if it enabled the skier to think more clearly. If he actually said this, I think his logic is that every time he enters the start gate, he is laying his life on the line hurling himself down the mountain at 90mph, and anything that improves his chances for survival would be a good thing. The catch-22 is that the fans, teams, and sponsors want results especially gold medals. The athlete may want fame and fortune, but also wants to survive.

  • davord

    October 14, 2012 at 2:36 am

    Good, honest stuff from Freeman regarding Armstrong. I don’t particularly agree with Wadsworth though. It’s the same old excuse of ‘we didn’t win because the Euros doped…’ Name me some names or teams on the circuit that you are sure are doping and how you know they are doping.

    Anyway, where are all those hipsters and posers who were spewing vitriol at various cross country skiers over the year now? Do they put Armstrong, or should I say, Pharmstrong in the same category as some of the Russians, Italians, Austrians, Finns, etc? What Tchepalova or Tauber or Di Centa or Veerpalu did in their careers pales in comparison to what Armstrong has been doing for so many years. He’s lied to so many people, he has manipulated many millions of sport fans who not only looked up to him, but also who started following cycling and brought great TV ratings and interest to the sport of cycling, he has paid massive amounts of money for the UCI to cover up his failed drug tests and has been using the anti cancer movement as a shield for his doping practices. He also threatened and treated whistleblowers and athletes/journalists who tried to break the omerta and bring some credence and honesty to this sport (think Bassons, Simeoni, Frankie and Betsy Andreu, Lemond, Kimmage, Walsh, Hamilton, Landis).

    Should he have been banned for life after having several positive urine tests at the 1999 Tour? Should the UCI be punished for covering up Armsrong’s failed drug test at the 2001 Tour de Suisse? I bet the same people who hate foreign dopers and have no problem dishing out life bans to them probably thought that this was just one big conspiracy from the French against American athletes because the French had struggled at the Tour de France for years and Americans like Armstrong, Hamilton, Landis were winning stages and dominated the French. I am glad he will be stripped of all of his results since 1998. It sends a strong message. I also want to see fans of XC skiing show some consistency with their outrage. Don’t be scared to look at doping in domestic sports. Russians, Finns, Italians, Austrians, Spaniards, aren’t the only ones doping. Look no further than Armstrong (pro cycling in general), the MLB, NFL, and T & F to find some prominent names in American sport for doping.

  • campirecord

    October 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Maybe you weren’t around during the great Finnish and Russian scandals in skiing ???? mmm… yeah sure, not pharmstrong but I think even worst… like massive massive loading… When your team physiologists keeps hanging around like a Michele Ferrari, then, yeah, Houston, we got a problem. When a coach gets his ass kicked during a world cup event because people won’t stand for bullshit, yeah, he’s been outed. It’s a small circle.

    One more thing, you might want to check out who Wadsworth married and what she stands for. If wasn’t for the Scott’s and the Pound’s of this world, the world would be 4 massive balls less…

  • campirecord

    October 14, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Davord, I happen to think some masters are heavily doping in my local bike races… Hearsay, but hearsay goes a long way. It’s suspicions that keeps a doper calm… more tests please.

  • davord

    October 14, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    I agree with you, campirecord. Although, how much of an influence could Scott and Wadsworth have on anti doping in regards to sports other than nordic skiing? Nordic skiing, although fairly popular in Europe, and obviously very popular in Scandinavia, isn’t anywhere near mainstream and it would be much easier to get fixed and cleaned up than say something like cycling, or football, or baseball or like I said, T&F. Look at the Armstrong revelations since he retired. Look at the sort of lying, cheating, manipulation, backdoor deals, and millions of dollars that go unnoticed in cycling. And cycling, when you compare it to the sports in North America, is rather small. I do agree with Wadsworth on NA skiers. Hard to see anyone doping. Too many smart and hard working people. Not saying cyclists aren’t hard working, but if you’ve seen the USADA files, the recent Hamilton, Landis and Leipheimer quotes, you know you are dealing with a massive problem. It’s not just certain teams or countries, it’s one huge mess. Do we really think a team like Sky is racing clean? Highly unlikely. No matter how much Wiggins screams and swears, we are not suckers anymore. The Armstrong/pro cycling scandals are much more than the Russian, Finnish, or anything else that went on in nordic skiing. I do feel sorry for those who bought into the Armstrong fairy tale. I was one of those.

  • Lars

    October 16, 2012 at 7:09 am

    All the dope scandals killed my interest in cycling.

    That said i don`t think all the athletes doped and i feel really bad for the what ? 10% that didn`t and for the athletes who never made it professionally cause they refused to cheat.

Leave a Reply