Thursday, 5 July 2012

Why Armstrong Still Matters

It's an often repeated quotation from one of the legends of the sport, but i'm going to repeat it here because i think it summarises perfectly the points i am going to lay out.

"If Armstrong's clean, it's the greatest comeback. And if he's not, then it's the greatest fraud."

Reading people's reactions on Twitter today to the news that four of Armstrong's former team mates, all of whom are approaching the twilight of their respective careers, have accepted 6-month bans for their admitted doping during their time with him and will testify against him, it is clear that people just want this to go away now. The will to deal with a case so inextricably linked to the development of cycling as a mainstream sport during the late 1990s and early 2000s just isn't there. There are probably a multitude of factors behind this, but i would say there are two central problems:

1) People are bored. The rumours have been rumbling on for years about Armstrong, during his time as the dominant keeper of the maillot jaune, through his first retirement and on into his return to the professional peloton. As individuals in a community, we have all come to our own opinions about his guilt or innocence, and no longer feel the need for further evidence one way or the other. 

2) The industry as a whole is scared that the massive growth in cycling built on Armstrong's popularity throughout the world as a dominant champion will wane if one of these rumours is proven to be true, and he is sanctioned or stripped of one or several of his yellow jerseys.

The reasons why we should still care, in spite of these two problems are clear. Firstly, we should not be content with trial by public opinion, regardless of whether public opinion is divided or unanimous. Take Iban Mayo, for instance. He tested positive for EPO during the 2007 Tour de France. He requested, as is the athlete's right in these cases, that his B-sample also be tested. It was tested at a different lab (the AFLD lab in Chatenay-Malbry that had done the original analysis was on summer vacation), and declared negative according to testing standards. According to the WADA rulebook, he should at this point have been declared free of sanctions, but instead his already-opened B-sample was tested again, this time at the same lab as the A-sample, and declared positive, and he was handed a 2-year ban. In spite of the fact that he was widely accepted to be "dodgy" we should have been furious at the infringement of testing protocol; if we don't apply perfect standards to the testing of riders, how can we possibly expect them to behave with the same rigour and care themselves? Instead, we looked on and thought "oh good, another dubious customer removed from the upper echelons of the pro peloton", and moved on to watching the 2007 Vuelta be won by Denis Menchov (oh the urge to comment further here...).

Secondly, when it comes to the current success of cycling as a recreation and competitive sport being built on a foundation of shady svengali doctors, and dubious medical supplements, i would say we should have more pride in our sport. There are people who came into the sport through the amazing success of the USPS team, and the excitement of the fact that a man who suffered from testicular cancer at a very early age in life managed to compete in one of the hardest sporting arenas in the world and win. They might not otherwise have come to ride a bike, it is true. But these people are already out there, riding their bikes, enjoying the countryside around where they live, and perhaps even competing with other likeminded individuals. To assume that they will stop doing these things tomorrow because the idol who inspired their first shaky steps into the sport is absurd. No offence to Lance, but cycling has so much more to offer than 3 weeks in July, "the look" and a blue and white conga line on every mountain stage.

So you might ask then why i want to see people taking this more seriously, after all, it all happened a long time ago. Well, the answer here is based on the sad truth of anti-doping science. The reality is that for the past 30 years, the testers have been consistently behind the riders, and if anything that gap is likely to grow in the future - there is not the political nor the financial will to fund testing to the degree where it will be able to compete with the investment from groups of athletes willing to break the rules to win (if you don't believe me, just think of the sums involved in the BALCO affair). In fact, history suggests that unscrupulous sports scientists charged with producing a tests for banned products may end up funnelling government funding they receive into doping of athletes (e.g. the Conconi affair). Since there will always be a lag between the testers and the athletes, the only real tool that anti-doping experts have in their armoury to level the playing field is time. We should abolish the 7-year statute of limitations, and allow retroactive testing of properly-stored samples for as long as it takes. If athletes know that they may be stripped of their wins 20 years after the fact should they do something illegal, they would doubtless be more circumspect about their actions. It sucks for the guys who are retroactively given awards and jerseys, like poor old Oscar Pereiro or Andy Schleck, but surely  as athletes realise that governing bodies are serious (and there has still been relatively little evidence of a will to pursue all dopers in cycling, regardless of their prominence) these cases will truly become a thing of the past.

Cycling in my view has yet to have its truth and reconciliation moment, a time when people come forward and speak the truth in an effort to put the past truly behind them and learn the lessons of history. We might just be on the brink of that moment. Let's hope we have the collective will to jump, rather than waiting to be pushed...

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