Analysis: USADA's Armstrong Decision

Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

Evidence implicates Armstrong in doping, sheds light on team-wide doping system.

There can be no doubt now that Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs for the majority of his career.

Early accusations of drug use and evasion of doping positives was easy to write off - it was individuals who were disgruntled at best, infuriated at worst, with their sport and their former boss who tried to expose the dirty side of Armstrong's seven victories in the Tour de France. Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis were cast aside from the sport, disgraced by doping positives and suspensions. And why would they not be angry? In an era of the sport where common perception was most riders were dirty, they were among the few that suffered. Even with the help of performance enhancing drugs and blood transfusions they were unable to step out of the shadow of their former boss.

Some believed the charges levied against Armstrong. At first a minority, they are sure to face a role reversal as the world gains access to the evidence assembled by USADA in its investigation of Armstrong and four staff members of the US Postal and Discovery teams. Hamilton and Landis are joined by twenty four other individuals in testimony, nine of whom were teammates of Armstrong for part or all of his career. The degree to which uncoordinated testimonies intersect time and time again, converging in on specific details - days, phrases, techniques - can not be the result of mere chance.

This is the bulk of the USADA case against Armstrong. The report mentions early on that even without supporting scientific evidence, the strength of testimonies would be sufficient to declare a non-analytical positive for using prohibited substances. A list below details some of the evidence. Though far from complete, it indicates the level of detail that was independently corroborated by individuals testifying independent of each other.

  • At the 1998 World Championships road race, Lance's wife Kristin Armstrong wrapped cortisone tablets in foil for riders on the United States team to take during the race. Numerous riders recounted how they joked about Kristin "rolling blunts."
  • Lance Armstrong received blood transfusions and other drugs on numerous occasions where more than two teammates witnessed the process. In one instance, several riders detailed how a team doctor snuck saline solution past a drug tester into a hotel room and gave Armstrong a transfusion of the liquid in order to lower his hematocrit prior to his drug test.
  • Italian doctor Michele Ferrari wrote training plans for clients that included specific instructions on when to take doses of various performance enhancing substances. A dot on a day indicated the rider was to inject 500iu EPO intravenously while a circle indicated an injection of 1,000iu EPO. Even riders who never rode on the teams investigated gave affidavits including this information.
  • Lance Armstrong continued to work with Michele Ferrari after 2004 despite public assertions he discontinued work with the doctor due to doping controversy.

Should testimony not be sufficient to convince the UCI and bystanders that Armstrong doped, USADA brings further evidence to bear that corroborates the stories told by those testifying, though the additional evidence only serves as a supporting role. Samples taken during the 1999 Tour de France tested positive for EPO, though the lab doing the re-testing failed to perform a B-test so the results were not sufficient to act on. Armstrong's blood values from 2009-2010 showed evidence of blood transfusions; an expert in blood testing put the odds of Armstrong's fluctuations of reticulocyte and plasma volume happening naturally given the training and racing he was undergoing at less than one in a million. Financial records link Armstrong with Ferrari from 1998-2005 and during his comeback in 2009-2010, shedding doubt on the claim that their suspicious partnership ended in 2004. The intersection of physical, financial, and eyewitness evidence makes the case much more than the sum of its parts.

More than just one man

Though the evidence against Armstrong that erases doubt that he did use illegal substances is important, the significance of the whole case extends much further than one individual. The testimonies bring focus to the two biggest threats to clean riding: culture and structure. One shapes human behavior passively, the other actively and with much more force. Both were clearly in place in the US Postal and Discovery teams.

During the period in question, some doctors and other staff members of teams were passive supporters of the doping culture in the sport. They would answer questions, perhaps provide doping supplies if asked or at least give directions on how to acquire them. The decision was left to the rider and other riders and staff members played a permissive role. US Postal trainer Jose "Pepe" Martin continued to sell EPO and other drugs to Levi Leipheimer after he left the team to ride for Rabobank and then Gerolsteiner. Lance suggested Hincapie and Andreau work with Dr. Ferrari because he wanted them to do better, to break through the barriers they felt they had reached. He opened the door but did not push them through it.

Others, however, pushed riders towards doping. Team doctor Garcia del Moral would at times refuse to tell riders what they were being injected with. Christian Vande Velde was threatened with a contract non-renewal if he did not fully comply with the doping program Ferrari gave him. Tom Danielson was convinced he needed to dope and then had access to more effective doping practices held over his head in contract renewal negotiations with Bruyneel. If Danielson did not sign a contract worth less than likely offers from other teams, he would not get access to blood transfusions in the Vuelta, undermining his ability to perform on an even playing field as his competition and receive good contract offers. The playing field was never equal, nor could it be. The best paid got the best access and doctors and managers played favorites. Pull you in, push you in, and then manipulate you.

There is always a choice to dope or not. Going home in the face of doping is a choice - one that was embraced by riders like Adam Meyerson and Tim Johnson. Every individual who testified made the choice to compromise sporting or even personal values to compete at the highest level and no protestations about a culture of doping or structures that pushed it on riders will diminish the importance of their individual choices. But the bigger issue at stake here is that institutions that make doping part of the structure of a team - as was the case with US Postal - make that choice seem near invisible. The risks appear mitigated or at least shifted towards the team. When a manager pushes his riders to dope, he signals that the risk of detection is low, that he does not fear it, that the benefits far outweigh the potential costs. Compounded with a seemingly corrupt governing body, the decision to dope seems obvious.

This fact is why the USADA case survived, why the effort many think was merely put into shedding light on one individuals' transgressions is more than that. Through the investigation of not only Lance Armstrong but also the other five US Postal and Discovery staff members, USADA has shone a bright flashlight into sordid the depths of the teams it could investigate. We see that Bruyneel's perspectives on doping were shaped by his time doping on the ONCE team and the experience he gained there. The way doping practices are passed on through riders and staff over and over is all too clear. But the greatest danger we now see is that experience and acceptance of doping paired with a manic desire to succeed at all costs can leave such a stain upon the sport and personal lives.

The Road Forward

Some may think only a purge of all those who doped in the past will eradicate whatever culture and structure supporting doping today exists. Others will point at the work of Jonathan Vaughters, who now runs a program committed to clean cycling and eradicating the choice of doping for all riders who pass through the program, and other reformed individuals. Sorting the spoiled apples from the good is no easy task for they all look the same on the outside.

While we debate where to go from here, the release of USADA's decision is already having far-reaching effects. Bruyneel has been released from his position as manager of the Radioshack - Nissan team. Leipheimer, Vande Velde, and Zabriskie will all serve suspensions, though their cooperation with the investigation has resulted in shortened ones that will run most of their course over the off season. Results are being stripped from riders who confessed to doping. Ferrari, who was working with numerous riders until just recently, has received a lifetime ban from working in the sport. Matt White, a member of the Orica-GreenEdge management, has stepped down after Floyd Landis' testimony indicated he was among the US Postal riders who used banned drugs with himself and Armstrong.

White's future is yet to be determined and he may return to a management role on the team, but his recent history shows the perils teams and riders face. As part of the management of Slipstream Sports and Vaughter's team, White sent a rider to former USPS doctor del Moral for a Vo2 test and blood work. Though it is likely no harm came of the encounter and it is doubtful White had any intention of promoting anything but clean riding, it shows that the links between riders and the individuals who once helped them dope are hard to break. Merely working with a doctor who once participated in such a wide reaching doping conspiracy always risks a rider receiving bad advice and being lured towards the dark side.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the USADA case is the knowledge we have gained that can help keep young riders clear of potentially dangerous influences. A second benefit is shedding light on the truth, embracing it for all of its unsavoriness and using it to show the world the way forward. Calling these events a sea change in the sport is likely too dramatic, but progress is being made. And will continue.

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