Lance Armstrong has never failed a drugs test. But his decision to drop his defence of doping charges led to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) stripping him of his seven Tour de France titles and banning him from competitive cycling forever.
The Lance Armstrong drug dispute is just one chapter in the increasing number of cases where sportsmen and women are presumed guilty of cheating before any evidence is placed against them. With all the talk of sports stars inspiring our young generation, we must ensure we avoid this dangerous trend becoming the norm, or else our youngsters will grow up with a very skewed interpretation of the fundamental legal right that you are innocent until proven guilty.
John Fahey, USADA's chief, believes Armstrong's decision to stop contesting the doping charges placed against him only leads to one conclusion: that he is a 'drug cheat'; that his refusal to respond to the charges transformed the allegations into fact.
But this is simply not how justice works. The International Cycling Union (UCI) said it would wait until the evidence was released before judging Armstrong's case, and that is exactly the stance that should rule any such allegations placed against sportsmen and women, or anyone for that matter.
So far all the conspiracies have been directed towards Armstrong, but some serious ones should be asked of USADA. The evidence they claim proves Armstrong's culpability comes from a federal investigation against Armstrong and his team. It lasted eighteen months and failed to find sufficient evidence to file criminal charges.
Now I'm not saying it is implausible that the same evidence would not necessarily lead to proof that Armstrong took drugs; there may not have been sufficient evidence to prosecute him criminally but it may be proof of sporting wrongdoing nonetheless. I am simply highlighting the fact that questions must be asked of the apparent strength of USADA's evidence given it failed to stand up in a federal US court, evidence which included Armstrong's team answering under oath.
And USADA's claim that 10 co-cyclists are prepared to testify against Armstrong is also questionable. You have to question the integrity of evidence from these witnesses, who must have a significant amount of self-interest to gain from giving evidence against an athlete who dominated their sport for nearly a decade, and athletes who themselves have as many questions to answer over foul play as Armstrong does himself.
It is not the strength of the evidence that I dispute, however. For all I know, Armstrong may well have drugged his way to seven consecutive Tour de France triumphs. Incidentally, if he is proven to have taken drugs, it means the thousands of drug tests that Armstrong took, which made him the most tested athlete ever, failed to discover banned substances. This would trigger a whole new problem for worldwide anti-doping.
Instead, it is the principle that USADA and sporting bodies across the world appear to accept that I see as extremely problematic and damaging: that you are guilty until proven innocent. USADA's chief said the weight of evidence against Armstrong, and his refusal to respond to the charges made the allegations "factual". Well let's see that evidence, have it judged before the UCI, Court of Arbitration for Sport or any independent panel of sports judges, before we convict an athlete who remains one of the greatest athletes of all time. One cannot simply assume that because someone refuses to defend themselves that they are guilty, especially considering they have been fighting the same allegations for over a decade.
The Armstrong case mirrors several other high profile cheating-related controversies that have mired world sport where sporting officials have jumped to guilty verdicts before seeing an ounce of evidence.
After Caster Semenya recorded a world leading time of 1 minute 56 seconds at the 800m in the 2009 World Athletics Championships, the first reaction from IAAF officials was not amazement but suspicion. It was faster than a woman was expected to be able to run and Semenya was placed under a gender test and suspended for 11 months. When she only won silver at London 2012, suspicion was again the first reaction, this time people were questioning whether she deliberately tried not to win in order to avoid another media storm.
Ye Shiwen generated a similar reaction when she swam the 400m individual medley at London 2012 in a world record-breaking time, breaking her own personal best by five seconds and swimming the last 50m faster than Ryan Lochte had in the men's equivalent. Those who agreed with the British Olympics chief Lord Moynihan's assessment that Shiwen "deserves recognition for her talent" were out-spoken by those who chose to jump straight to suspicious conclusions.
Completely unfounded claims were launched against her sporting integrity; her performance was dubbed as "disturbing and suspicious" by none other than the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association John Leonard. He said: "At this point it is not believable to many people", saying the swim was being seen in the coaching community he represents as "unbelievable in its precise meaning." He compared her swim to that of Ireland's Michelle Smith, who was banned for tampering with a urine sample in the same event in the 1996 Olympics. Needless to say, Shiwen's samples have come back clean, and the suspicions were, like Semanya's, proven to be wrong.
These sporting achievements are the stories that inspire people throughout the world to better their own lives, they offer hope to those who are losing faith, whether that be sporting related or not. Lance Armstrong is one of the most inspiring people, let alone sportsmen, that have ever lived. His story of overcoming testicular cancer in 1996 before winning seven consecutive Tour de France championships is a story that should inspire anyone who has experienced a setback of any nature in all walks of life.
But it is not his legacy which is just at stake here. If he is proven to have cheated, then albeit throw the appropriate punishments at him. Regardless of what happens with Armstrong, we must ensure that our first reaction to record breaking human sporting achievements is not mired in suspicion and an automatic assumption of foul play. To respect the vast majority of clean, honest athletes who abide by the principle of fair play, our first reaction must be amazement, praise and honor, until the athlete in question is proven, through evidence, to have cheated.
If we continue down this treacherous path of assuming record-breaking athletes are cheats, we risk losing the inspirational power that sporting heroics offer society and the long-term legacy society takes from sport will eventually be one that changes the fundamental legal right that one is innocent until proven otherwise.Suggest a correction