Three summers ago I had the privilege of meeting Greg LeMond after his presentation at the Play the Game sports conference at Coventry in England. Surrounded by a posse of press persons and admirers all wanting to get exclusive sound bytes, I chatted with him briefly before others butted in with their questions.
In his engrossing talk at the conference before that, LeMond, dubbed as “America’s great clean cyclist” as he has never been accused or suspected of taking drugs, spoke frankly about the use of performance-enhancing substances in his sport and described pro cyclists as “lab rats” for doctors, coaches and teams intent on winning at all costs.
Lemond also flayed the International Cycling Union (UCI) for pursuing a policy of “punishing honesty and rewarding dishonesty” when it came to dope cheats and advocated an independent drug testing agency to test riders competing in the Tour de France.
While many drug users do escape the dragnet, LeMond felt it was next to impossible that cyclists who didn’t do drugs would test positive: “I know the sport, and I doubt that there is anyone who has wrongly tested positive when they are negative…There could be, but I doubt it…”
It was inevitable that a question would pop up about Lance Armstrong, who has never tested positive for doping or taking performance enhancing drug despite being subject to over 500 tests. Asked point blank if the seven-time Tour de France winner would ever admit to his culpability, LeMond bluntly replied, “No way. That guy has no conscience.”
Both fellow Americans have been publicly feuding with each other over the years after LeMond hauled up Armstrong for his links with controversial Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, of EPO use fame. And both cheated death before they scripted some amazing triumphs.
The Texan’s successful comeback against advanced testicular cancer in 1996 at age 25 to claim seven successive Tour de France titles from 1999-2005 is the stuff of legend. The Nevada native and two-time world champion took 37 shotgun pellets in his body in a 1987 hunting accident, yet clawed back to add two more Tour titles in 1989 & 1990 after becoming the first American and non-European to peddle triumphantly down the Champs-Élysées in 1986.
It was LeMond who predicted two years ago that his nemeses would finally catch up with the allegedly vindictive Armstrong who has reportedly used his money power and battery of lawyers to bludgeon his detractors into submission. In an interview with the French Journal Du Dimanche newspaper, LeMond said he felt that the federal probe by the US authorities should not be taken lightly and could even bring about the downfall of the world’s most famous cyclist.
“Up until now, he has achieved great things, if you consider he did it fairly, which I don’t believe,” LeMond said in the interview. “For him, it’s the beginning of the end.”
The federal investigation, led by crack albeit controversial US Food and Drug Administration agent Jeff Novitzky who had cornered the likes of Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, BALCO and Floyd Landis, surprisingly closed their criminal investigation of Armstrong early this year without charging him. However, the US Anti-Doping Agency went ahead and charged Armstrong in June. Armstrong’s lawsuit to restrain them failed last week leading him to opt out of the fight with his classic ‘enough is enough statement’.
The cycling world is clearly divided on the question of Armstrong’s guilt. He has several supporters in the fraternity. “Lance is disillusioned and is up against an unjust process. At a certain point disenchantment sets in…” rallied legendary five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx, who incidentally tested positive thrice for banned substances though one of those was later expurgated from the banned list. Another five time champion Miguel Indurain has also chipped in to say that Armstrong should be allowed to keep his seven titles “until an organisation recognised by all parties decides to the contrary.” The Spaniard felt that the USADA’s case against Armstrong was “strange” and its pursuit of the rider was “without foundation or scruples”.
Even the district judge, Sam Sparks, who declined to pass an order in favour of Armstrong on the point of jurisdiction and suggested that the cyclist submit himself to arbitration, passed strictures against the agency: “USADA’s conduct raises serious questions about whether its real interest in charging Armstrong is to combat doping or if it is acting according to less noble motives…”
In a strongly-worded column, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who has authored two books with Armstrong, has flayed the “USADA’s hypocrisy”, pointed out the futility of arbitration and highlighted how 2010 Tour winner Alberto Contador was unfairly indicted in Court of Arbitration for Sport for an insignificant amount of clenbuterol in his urine and banned for two years, a decision which so shocked runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg that he refused to accept the title.
So perhaps Armstrong decided to pass up his right to forgo arbitration and all his titles because he stood no chance against an unjust system. Or perhaps, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour as the public spectacle of an arbitration proceeding where testimonies from former colleagues would be aired would have left him tarnished forever.
But it’s also possible that Armstrong’s decision to suffer condemnation by speculation and still strike a heroic posture instead of risking a possible humiliation in court could be a masterstroke. He still has time to appeal the judgment and can also appeal USADA’s order in the federal court. For a man who has hitherto fought everyone and everything and won, Armstrong’s recent capitulation goes against his own grain – “Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever”.
So maybe, Armstrong has not quit, but merely made a tactical retreat to live to fight another day, preferably in the UCI, which has so far adopted a wait and watch approach on the USADA verdict stripping Armstrong of all his Tour titles and could have its own take on the issue of jurisdiction.
Phill Bates, a member of the UCI’s arbitration tribunal, has fired the first salvo and described USADA’s actions against Armstrong as unenforceable. “While Armstrong may have opted not to continue with his legal fight, USADA, a signatory to the WADA code, has no jurisdiction to punish or impose sanctions against any rider”, Bates has said in The Australian. “…If USADA believes Armstrong has a case to answer, the ultimate judge should be the UCI, not a publicity-seeking chief executive hell-bent on a witch-hunt to chop down the tallest poppy in our sport.”
So it’s not yet the end of the road for Armstrong and there may yet be some more twists and turns in this long-running saga…