Tuesday, May 24, 2011
What's Next For Lance Armstrong?
As widely reported last week, Tyler Hamilton was on the CBS news show 60 Minutes over the weekend, where he recounted tales of performance enhancing drug use by Lance Armstrong and other members of the U.S. Postal Team which dominated the Tour de France a decade ago. If you missed the report, and want to catch-up, a transcript and several videos are available by clicking here.
During the interview, Hamilton talked about the use of EPO, testosterone, and even blood transfusions that he, and his teammates, including Armstrong, used while he was part of the team from 1999 to 2001. Hamilton described the culture of cycling as being one in which if you didn't use these banned substances, you simply wouldn't be able to compete. If a cyclist wanted to keep his job, and stay in the sport, he really didn't have any choice. What he described is not unlike a number of other sports, such as baseball, where the annual home run race became a media circus in years past.
Watching Hamilton give his account of the details, I was struck by how difficult it seemed for him to talk about his experiences during his career as a pro-cyclist. He was very much aware that he was not only sharing the intimate details of his own life, but also that of many of his friends in the sport, including Lance Armstrong. He seemed extremely reluctant at times and I personally felt that he was very convincing. Hamilton shared with the 60 Minutes audience the same things he told a grand jury that is investigating the use of performance enhancing drugs in the sport, and whether or not their use on the U.S. Postal team constitutes fraud against the government, who was primary sponsor of the squad. Depending on their findings, riders, coaches, and doctors, including Lance Armstrong, could face jail time.
While Armstrong hasn't really responded to the accusations directly, there isn't much here that he hasn't heard before. His legal team has pointed out the fact that Hamilton has a book that he is pushing, and that by dragging Lance's name into the conversation, he stirs up controversy and garners publicity. As always, Armstrong hangs his defense on the fact that he has been tested hundreds of times throughout his career, and hasn't failed a single test.
While processing all these latest accusations, the one thing that stood out in my mind most was not what Tyler Hamilton said, but what fellow rider George Hincapie hasn't. Hincapie and Lance have been friends for years, and there may not be another rider that is closer to Armstrong. Hincapie rode along with Lance on all seven of his Tour de France victories, and the two have remained close, even after Lance's retirement.
In light of Hamilton's statements, rumors have come to light that Hincapie has told the grand jury similarly damning things about Lance. While Hincapie has neither denied or confirmed these rumors, he has allegedly testified that he and Lance injected EPO together and had, at the very least, talked about other performance enhancing drugs.
If this story is true, and Hincapie has admitted these things, it would be a witness that would be difficult for Armstrong and his team, to dismiss. George doesn't have an axe to grind, he doesn't appear to be selling anything, and he hasn't rushed out for an publicity. Discrediting his accounts will be no easy task to say the least.
Taking into account all of this news, it is difficult to not think about what might be next for Lance Armstrong. He and his legal team seem prepared to fight to the bitter end to protect his considerable reputation, continually pointing to the fact that he has never failed a drug test, something that was also called into question in the 60 Minutes report. Proving a negative is always a difficult task however, and we all know there are ways to mask the use of performance enhancing drugs, which will always cast a shadow of doubt in either direction.
Personally, I think that it is naive to believe that anyone could win the Tour multiple times without using some kind of PEDs. When you consider that the vast majority of the peloton appeared to have been using something, it seems miraculous that anyone not doping could compete at all, let alone win. I don't want to dismiss the fact that the use of performance enhancing drugs were so prevalent in the sport, nor offer up any excuses for riders, but much like the "home run era" of baseball, the doping era of cycling was, and quite frankly remains, simply standard operating procedure for the athletes who were and are competing during that time period.
Of course, the grand jury doesn't seem to see it that way, and they seem to be hyper-focused on nailing Lance Armstrong the wall. Much like the investigation into Barry Bond's use of PEDs, it has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a case against Lance, which could quite possibly land him behind bars. Anyone who thinks otherwise should consider the case against Marion Jones, and where she ended up.
The differences between Armstrong and Jones however are quite vast in terms of public personas. Marion Jones is an accomplished Olympic athlete who was very dominant in her sport and competed at an incredibly high level. Lance Armstrong was also a very dominant athlete who ruled his sport, but he is also an American icon, whose story has inspired millions and his charity work has extended his reach well beyond the world of cycling. He is, quite simply, one of the most respected athletes in the U.S., and if these accusations were to be proven true, it would shatter a lot of the Armstrong myth that many have come to enjoy.
As I mentioned last week, my biggest fear is that all of the good work that Armstrong has done with his Livestrong Foundation could possibly be tainted by these doping scandals. He has been a tireless advocate for cancer research, and those little yellow wrist bands have raised millions of dollar to help fight that disease. That legacy can't be taken away from him, and neither should his seven victories in the Tour de France, but it seems that the number of people close to Lance who claim to have seen him use EPO and other PED's continues to grow.
Eventually it'll come down to a game of "Who Do You Believe," and while we all have our opinions on Lance, the question isn't just who does the grand jury believe, but also what they can prove. For the moment, that remains a very murky question, and in the end, it will be what decides the fate of Lance Armstrong.
The waiting game continues for us all.