The Tour de France is one of my favorite sporting events of the year, and like most American’s Lance Armstrong is who introduced me to the sport of cycling. I came in somewhat late in Armstrong’s run. The first image I have is of Armstrong avoiding a Joseba Beloki crash by cutting across a field during stage 9 of the 2003 Tour de France. From that moment forward I was hooked. At the time rumblings about Armstrong possibly being a doper were already being circulated in the media. Armstrong, as he still does today, completely denied the claims, and at the time I (along with many others) believed he was telling the truth. I continued to believe in the following years as I watched Armstrong ultimately go on to win 7 Tour de France titles. Like many people I mostly believed Armstrong was telling the truth because I wanted to believe it. There was no overwhelming evidence at the time to prove he was lying about drug use. In the United States he was a hero with an amazingly inspirational comeback story, and it was easy to look at the accusations coming from the French press as sour grapes. My Faith started to waiver in 2006 when the Operation Puerto scandal rocked the world of cycling. With the suspensions of main Armstrong competitors Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso along with a host of others, the breadth of the doping problem in cycling started to become much more clear. In the years since Operation Puerto more and more of the stars of the peloton have either admitted to using performance enhancing drugs, or have been found guilty by the sport’s governing bodies. One objective for the USADA in their case against Armstrong was to strip him of the 7 Tour de France titles he won while using performance enhancing drugs. However when one looks at the list of top finisher’s from those tours it becomes very difficult to determine who the rightful winner should be. It is extremely difficult to find an elite cyclist from the era that hasn’t been convicted, or implicated with using performance enhancers, and it seems the list of names is likely to grow as more riders admit to their past wrong doings or are found guilty. So my question is what does the USADA really want from Armstrong? Do they want a confession? That seems highly unlikely as Armstrong referred to their investigation as a “witch hunt” when they released findings against him in August. It also seems fairly obvious the USADA would know no confession is likely to ever come from Armstrong. So did they hope to destroy his reputation? As someone who considers themselves a fan of Armstrong still to this day, even I stopped believing several years ago that he was racing clean. As more and more riders were found to be racing dirty it became impossible to believe that the guy who came back from cancer could beat these other riders and do it without the aid of performance enhancers. While this knowledge was somewhat disappointing it didn’t ruin what he accomplished in my mind. In a sport where everyone is cheating, the winner is still the winner, he was still the best, and he still won the most physically demanding sporting event in the world more times than anyone else in history. After the news of the USADA case against Armstrong and his decision to no longer fight it came out in August donations to Livestrong (Armstrong’s charity) jumped more than 25 times over the previous day’s donations. So it seems that like me most people had accepted the truth about Armstrong for a long time, and news that furthered confirmed that truth did little to change opinions. Cycling, like track and field and baseball is unfortunately a sport that lends itself very easily to the use of performance enhancing drugs. The problem existed long before Armstrong, with cycling legends Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx admitting to drug use and being convicted of using stimulants respectively. And the problem continues on today, Alberto Contador just won the Vuelta a Espana last month after coming back from a doping suspension for a positive test during the 2010 Tour de France. Alexander Vinokourov won the Olympic road race gold medal this summer at age 38 after being suspended for doping years earlier. Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, two of the men most central to the case against Armstrong both came back to ride in the Tour de France again after serving suspensions (Hamilton often had creative explanations for his positive tests. Lance Armstrong, however, after the case by the USADA is serving a life time ban from cycling, and has also been excluded from many other endurance events, such as triathlons and marathons he competed in while gaining visibility for his Livestrong charity. The USADA uses the logic that Armstrong was key in distributing performance enhancers and in enforcing a ‘code of silence’ as logic for the much harsher penalties he received. The evidence the USADA made available to the public (I will attach a link at the bottom of this post) leaves no room for doubt that Armstrong and his teammates were involved in extensive use of various performance enhancing agents. But those facts have been clear for many years to anyone willing to open their eyes. I’m sure there are a few extremely loyal followers who will continue to insist Armstrong is in fact the victim of a “witch hunt,” the same way some insist we never put a man on the moon. However for those of us who have known the truth for a long time, this seeming desire from the USADA to bury Armstrong and his reputation seems late and unnecessary. Cycling is still not free of performance enhancing drugs, neither is baseball or track and field or many other sports. To me it seems that rather than spending time and resources on the past, on era’s so tarnished by performance enhancers that some feel all accomplishments from the time should be wiped from the record books or labeled with an asterisk, the USADA and all other anti-doping agencies should focus on the future of sport, on making the results clean and keeping athletes healthy. Despite the efforts of some of his former teammates and the USADA I will continue to support Armstrong now and in the future. I’m choosing not to remember him as a bully and a cheater (even though I accept that he did cheat, and he most likely did use bullying tactics) but as a person who overcame incredible odds to win the Tour de France more times than anyone else and in doing so gave hope to millions of people affected by cancer. I’m choosing to end this post by leaving you with a quote from George Hincapie’s sworn affidavit and a video of Armstrong’s attack on Alpe-d’Huez in the 2001. The video still gives me chills and represents how I will choose to remember Armstrong, as an amazingly gifted, somewhat cocky athlete who achieved greatness on what I view as an even playing field. George Hincapie, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the only person to ride with Armstrong for all 7 winning tours, is one of 2 riders to ride on 9 tour winning teams, and has ridden in more tours (17) than anyone else in history. Hincapie is also an admitted doper who retired at the end of this season and is one of the 11 teammates whose affidavits were included in the USADA case. I’m including in this post a quote from the end of Hincapie’s affidavit, which I feel helps illustrate the culture in cycling at the time Armstrong was competing, and which helps make the case that it is time to move on rather than condemning these men for sins of the past. “I have witnessed many important things that Lance has done for his fellow man through battling cancer and being a role model for many. My testimony is not intended to take away from, or diminish those things. Lance and I, and our teammates, raced on the Motorola Team, on the U.S. Postal Service Team, and on the Discovery Channel Team during a time period when our sport was inundated with performance enhancing drugs. The doping controls were not very good and we came to believe that we needed to use banned substances to compete at the very highest levels. While I understand the choices we made were wrong, I understand why we made them, at the time, we felt justified in making them. I do not condemn Lance for making those choices and I do not wish to be condemned for making them.” I hope that after reading this post you will agree that rather than condemning these men for the past we need to look to the future of sport. However moving forward doesn’t mean that we can’t still look back, and I personally will look back on this image of Armstrong and continue to remember how great he was, and appreciate the impact he has had.
Edit: I meant to include the link to documents released by USADA in their ‘reasoned decision’ against Armstrong, links to affidavits of all 11 former teammates are included here