Round-table: Lance Armstrong – not guilty or not proven?

After a criminal investigation lasting nearly two years, US federal authorities confirmed on Friday night that they would not be pursuing charges relating to “allegations of federal criminal conduct by members and associates of a professional bicycle racing team owned in part by Lance Armstrong”.

The focus of the investigation centred on possible fraud and misuse of public funds provided by the team sponsor, US Postal Service, rather than the actual subject of doping, as use of performance-enhancing drugs is not a criminal offence under US law. Nonetheless, it had been widely expected by many in the cycling world that a team led by high-profile investigator Jeff Novitzky would end up prosecuting Armstrong and others involved with the running of the team.

Armstrong himself said the following in a statement:

I am gratified to learn that the US Attorney’s Office is closing its investigation. It is the right decision and I commend them for reaching it. I look forward to continuing my life as a father, a competitor, and an advocate in the fight against cancer without this distraction.

However, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has stated that it hopes to conduct its own inquiry using evidence gathered in the criminal investigation, which includes testimony given by former teammates (and convicted dopers) Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. They may seek to enforce a retrospective sporting ban which could result in Armstrong’s name being expunged from the record books.

At VeloVoices we’ve been busy debating the implications of this story. Here’s what we thought.

Let’s start by putting our cards on the table. Never mind what can and cannot be proven, do we think Lance Armstrong was a doper?

Tim: The romantic in me has always wanted to believe in the fairy-tale of Armstrong’s comeback from cancer, while accepting the possibility that fairy-tales tend not to be true. But with the growing weight of other people’s testimony against him, I’ve increasingly suspected the worst. I think he probably did dope, but I’m not going to say he definitely did until someone shows me the proof.

Merckx also served a doping ban (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Kathi: Considering that just about everyone in the top ten of the years he won the Tour have been banned or significantly tainted by doping scandals, it’s hard to believe he was the only person who didn’t. But, that said, I don’t really care. I know that’s controversial but I would prefer all the time and energy that went into trying to prove something that happened ten years ago actually be put into the active doping cases now. Where does it end? Are we going to call for Eddy Merckx to be stripped of his wins – it’s often conveniently forgotten that he actually served a ban! At what point is enough enough and we go forward?

Sheree: I remember when I took part in the Ride of the Roses in 2009, all my French club mates, on hearing I was riding with Lance, said to me “You know he doped.” I said the case against him hadn’t been proven but that there was a large body of circumstantial evidence and supposition to suggest he probably had done so. But given that it was highly probably the others had done too, in my opinion, he was still the best. It wasn’t EPO or whatever that had set him apart but his meticulous planning and preparation. My view is unchanged by recent events.

Jack: I agree with you both – I think the amount of evidence which has come to light from former teammates and fellow professionals mean that it’s highly likely that he doped. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t an exceptional cyclist – as it’s equally likely that everyone else (or most others) doped too, but yeah, I believe so.

Tim: It’s a good point about the doping culture of cycling in the late 1990s/early 2000s. If Lance was cheating, he certainly wasn’t alone. But if that’s the case, he won because he has a winner’s mentality, not solely because of any performance-enhancing drugs.

Are we surprised that the federal investigation has closed without charges being filed?

Kathi: No, I’m not, because what the federal investigation was trying to find out was not whether or not he doped but if it was systematic fraud and conspiracy against a government agency.

Tim:  I agree. This was never a case about doping. All we know is that there was insufficient proof to bring a fraud prosecution against anyone. People are getting two very different things mixed up.

Sheree: Money talks and nowhere more so than in the States. Finding him guilty of fraud would not have been in anyone’s interest and where would it stop? Who else would be dragged into the investigation? For example, companies such as Nike, Trek and Oakley have made significant profits from their sponsorship of and close association with Lance? Should they give that up too?

Jack:  I can’t say I am surprised. As you guys have said no-one would come out of it looking very good, and the whole Lance affair has dragged on for so many years that I don’t think that it’s ever going to be resolved – and certainly not with a satisfactory conclusion.

Is the saga finally over, or will USADA deliver a sting in the tail?

Tim: I would be surprised if any potential USADA action succeeded. An investigation would be expensive, besmirch an American icon and the US authorities don’t have the greatest record of pursuing their own. Ultimately I think they will feel there is little to be gained in slinging mud (and cash) at the past, and this is more an exercise in PR posturing.

Kathi: He’s too polarising a figure for it to ever be over. I don’t know what USADA will do. They’re trying to get whatever evidence has been turned up, but they have no subpoena power and I wouldn’t be surprised if the records are sealed.

Sheree: I echo both your comments.

Jack: Agreed. As I said before, there’s very little chance that it’ll ever be concluded.

How do we feel about the whole affair?

Sheree: Ambivalent, but it won’t change how I feel about Armstrong.

Kathi: I don’t think anyone comes off looking good. Not the investigators (whose department leaked like a sieve – I don’t care if you hate Armstrong or not, he wouldn’t have gotten a fair trial with that stuff going on), not Lance, not anyone. So it’s just been a mess that gives non-cycling fans another club to beat cycling fans with. I also think that for the amount of public money that was spent on this, perhaps that money could have gone to, I don’t know, Medicaid, Medicare, homeless shelters, employment schemes. But that’s just crazy talk, I know.

Jack: I must admit, I don’t really care. I don’t think that ‘justice’ will ever be done – whatever that may be. As far as I’m concerned, Lance is in the past and I’ve moved beyond caring now!

Tim: I have to echo that. If only everyone involved was as passionate about fixing the present as they seem to be about prosecuting the past, the sport would be in a much healthier state. I understand many people’s anger at the case being dropped – although there has been an element of the lynch mob about it at times – but the whole affair has served only to poison the sport’s relationship with both its casual fans and its detractors. Nobody wins in a situation like this. Nobody.

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