Guilty until proven innocent? Surely I have that wrong? Yet that is how the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and some sections have chosen to perceive Lance Armstrong. Personally, I am doubtful of the allegations. Yes, he dominated one of the world's most physically demanding events for seven years; a feat made even more impressive considering the advanced cancer he recovered from only years prior. I have to admit that I sometimes struggle to see how one person could dominate the sport without some sort of assistance. Yet I do, simply because he is that successful. No one athlete in the world, Usain Bolt included, has been tested so frequently and so closely examined by federal and governing bodies, not to mention writers and journalists.
Let us examine the USADA case, or rather lack of one. The evidence has yet to be made public, and I will stand down if the USADA report can show clear and damming proof that can stand up to cross examination. What we do know is that the majority of the evidence is based around witness testimony, as are most cases. As anyone who has watched any of the myriad of Law and Order TV programs will know the character of these witnesses can be questioned, and evidence discredited should it be proven that they have a motive to give false testimony. One of these witnesses will likely be Floyd Landis, Armstrong's former teammate who himself tested positive during the 2006 Tour De France and has only this week been found guilty of fraud. Hardly a strong witness, and someone who has a clear inclination to smear Armstrong's legacy in order to drag him down to his level.
Another witness maybe Emma O'Reilly, Lance's former masseur who has long alleged he asked her to, among other offences, dispose of syringes and collect packages possibly containing drugs. This would be damming if this amounted to more than hearsay, as she has yet to produce any physical proof of these allegations. Neither photos of these packages, nor any syringes that could have been DNA tested.
Similarly, former teammate Frankie and his wife Betsy Andreu alleged that in 1996 Armstrong admitted during treatment for cancer that he had used the steroids and synthetic Erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that can increase red blood cell counts and thus improves endurance. This is the same Frankie Andreu who admitted to the New York Times in 2006 he used EPO. Additionally, this accusation was uncorroborated and is tenuous as it is what they overheard Lance say. As steroids and EPO are routinely used to treat the side effects of chemotherapy, then it could be the case that they heard that he had been prescribed theses drugs or that he was using them medicinally. Couple this with a sworn affidavit from Armstrong's chief oncologist, Craig Nichols MD, in which he states he had never heard Lance admitting drug use.
As the witness list has yet to be published, we can only assume these names may or may not be on it. However, as in the above cases, the argument can be made that several may have made false or exaggerated statements for several reasons. The ex employee with an axe to grind. The former teammate jealous of his success, or even because they are proven dopers. This puts me in mind of McCarthy era witch hunts; where you could merely state that your adversary was a communist regardless of evidence or underlying motive. It is simply guilt by association.
Also, as yet we do not know if any have been offered deals such as immunity to provide evidence. This does not mean Lance is guilty, but they could mention Lance as to gain protection for aiding another rider in doping. That I could pick such holes in the report even before it was published shows the case is not watertight by any means, and this is even before the physical evidence is considered. However I will place a caveat here. It is possible that one or more testimony is so detailed and lucid, and stands up to cross examination that even a doubter such as I may believe it. In turn, this will add weight to even Landis's claims. Yet until I hear this testimony, I remain in defence of Lance simply because I believe the evidence as it stands is tenuous at best.
As I have already stated, Lance is probably the most tested athlete in the modern era, or at least close to it. Irrespective, he has competed for well over a decade and passed every test administered should show that he is he is either clean, or that he heads an incredibly effective conspiracy. This would require fraud and deception on a global scale. It would mean that every doctor, lab technician and nurse that ever took a sample was in on it. It would mean that major governing bodies from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to cycling's UCI had conspired to suppress positive results.
One must ask why go through all this just to keep Lance in the clear? Of course certain corners gain from having brand Armstrong associated with cycling, and would like to keep him there. But would WADA gain? Further, where is the paper trail? This may come out in the USADA case, but it is difficult to imagine they have done what so many have failed to do a find a smoking gun. This may well prove to be the case however, as failing to nail Armstrong firmly for his alleged doping will forever taint the agency. In addition, they gain little from going after Lance as someone loved by large swaths of the US population. One merely needs to look at sales of his autobiographies to see he is bigger than cycling; all those sales cannot be from cycling fans alone.
Even tests that came back with discrepancies can be explained, such as his alleged positive test for EPO in the 1999 Tour. First, an effective test for the synthetic hormone was not used until the following year's tour, and EPO occurs naturally. Second, the test was not a routine test; it was a research sample to help create a test for EPO. There were no A and B samples taken and as such, it cannot be conclusively proven that the sample was not tainted or an irregularity. It is also worth noting that all bar one of Armstrong's titles came when this EPO test was in use.
Similarly, the evidence that USADA may have was taken during the 2009 and 2010 tours, neither of which he won. If he did dope, then it does not prove he won a title whilst using. Further, the tests are inconclusive depending on your reading. According to Juliet Macur's August 24th article in the New York Times, the tests prove positivity by using indirect markers. Whilst it is true a reason has yet to be made for a reason why his blood results would be abnormal, if the case had ever gone to trial a succession of doctors and scientist would have argued both convincingly for and against the findings. Further cross-examination would cast doubt on the chain of evidence i.e. that the samples could not have been mishandled between 2009 to now. In short, all Lance would have to do is to show reasonable doubt.
One final, and crucial, point. If Lance did dope, and avoided detection, then he must be luckier than most of his competitors and teammates or, again, part of the largest conspiracy in any sport in history. From Alberto Contador to Landis, to Alex Zulle to Tyler Hamilton, dozen of competitors in the Tour have been banned for doping. It is difficult to imaging Lance beating the system that caught so many.
The thing is that Lance is bigger than the sport. He is not referred to in the media as Lance Armstrong, cyclist. He is Lance Armstrong, or more simply, Lance. He transcends the sport. Whether due to his relationships with the likes of Sheryl Crow or the LiveStrong foundation, millions of Americans recognise him despite perhaps never watching him race. To many he is, for lack of a better word, a hero. He has inspired many to take up his sport, and given hope to many more cancer suffers and their families. Much like his namesake, Neil Armstrong.
Neil has inspired generations of pilots, scientist and the occasional astronaut. Like Neil, Lance is what may be termed an everyman. He does not descend from nobility or wealth. His upbringing (despite being punctuated by his parents divorce and subsequent adoption by his step-father) was seemingly normal, much like Neil's. That the Armstrong's can go on and achieve such amazing yet disparate feats embodies the American Dream in that anyone can go on to become something and somebody. Much the same as Michael Phelps helps Baltimore dream of a better life than is familiar to the viewers of The Wire. Much the same as Jay-Z shows that just because you may come from the projects, it does not relegate you to a life of drugs and crime. Much the same could be said of President Obama, regardless of political persuasion.
America needs idols and heroes to perpetuate the American Dream which has helped it become such a magnificent nation. After all, this is the home of both Marvel and D.C. comics, let alone Hollywood and TV. In the wake of the financial crises, of several shootings from Wisconsin to Colorado alongside losing the first man to walk on the moon (which embodied the scale of the US's seemingly lost ambition), America needs its heroes, perhaps more that it has in a very long while.
I hope that I am proved right and Lance is vindicated. Whilst I have my doubts, and I could well be proved wrong in the coming weeks, but it seems with the evidence in the public domain they have crucified Lance prematurely. For the sake of the US, I hope Lance can dust himself down, concentrate on his LiveStrong foundation and continue to give hope to many. This is not to elevate Lance to a messiah or place him on any pedestal; he is flawed like any human. However, the only ones gaining from this witch hunt are those with a vendetta against Lance, America only loses by turning on its idols. By turning inwards and attacking those who elevate its populous, who inspire countless numbers only serves to dent the American Dream. In Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, this drive towards a better tomorrow sustained many through the darkest parts of the Great Depression. In the current economic climate, this Dream is just as vital as it ever was.
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