Lance Armstrong Doping Gambit: Blame Big Tobacco

Bonked. Cooked. Whatever bike racing term you use, it now applies to the reputation of Lance Armstrong and, more sadly, to the reputation of his 15-year-old cancer advocacy organization, The Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF, or Livestrong).

Today the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a statement and a collection of documents detailing the extent of its conspiracy investigation against Armstrong, the entirety of which is to be sent to the Union Cycliste International (UCI), the governing body that oversees the Tour de France.

That’s not to say Armstrong isn’t attempting to fight back: Just this morning, USA Today reported that lawyer Tim Herman sent a letter to the USADA as an obvious “see what sticks” damage control tactic, writing: “This reasoned decision will be a farce, written by USADA with the significant assistance of lawyers from one of Big Tobacco’s favorite law firms at a time when Lance Armstrong is one of America’s leading anti-tobacco advocates. While USADA can put lipstick on a pig, it still remains a pig.”

That’s a bit of a wild conspiracy theory there, no?

If you’re not a cycling fan, we’ll save you a bit of time in explaining the situation: The sport is insanely grueling, and for many years doctors, athletes, coaches and team managers have been experimenting with all available substances to gain an edge in the professional ranks. While many enter the field with the best intentions to stay clean (and do), many are ground down by the constant pressure to stay employed and score points with the UCI. And many seem to jump headlong into doping.

A collection of widely available literature on the subject makes clear the fact that Armstrong and his teammates are not any more guilty than the conga line of cyclists who’ve been caught doping in the last 20 years–they were just much better at hiding it. As former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton explains in his biography “The Secret Race,” the U.S. Postal team stayed a couple of steps ahead of doping authorities for many years by employing a code of silence and adjusting their methods in anticipation of new tests.

The details in Hamilton’s book are sometimes nauseating–in addition to banned substances, many riders actually “bank” bags of their own blood. At great risk, top riders are “turbo charged” with fresh blood right before critical moments on the 3-week-long Tour. Hamilton only got caught because his “Doctor”, who was not as organized as Lance’s, inadvertently gave him someone else’s blood (eww).  Once he’d been been stripped of his wins and his Olympic gold medal and spent most of his money on a legal defense, Hamilton had nothing left to lose–so he teamed up with a respected journalist to tell his side of the story.

Armstrong and his legal team, which includes Tim Herman and “Master of Distaster” Mark Fabiani, generally employ two tactics: First, attack the messenger. Hard. Second, remind everyone that Lance has never failed a drug test. Don’t say he’s never used performance-enhancing drugs, just say he’s never tested positive. Repeat it a thousand times. (Hamilton and other witnesses now say that Lance indeed failed a test in 2001 and that it was swept under the rug by the UCI itself, but that’s another story.)

It all amounts to a shit mountain as high as a French Alpine pass.

The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen. We only hope that any good that has been done by Livestrong, its staff, volunteers and advocates is not undone. But that, too, is one hard race to win.