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By Harry Hodges
Alright, you caught me, it’s a fair cop; I’m an Armstrongophile and like the rest of Lance’s vast legion of fans the newspapers have not made comfortable reading over the past few months as his seven back-to-back Tour de France winds come under scrutiny from American anti-doping investigators. To win it once, as British fans saw with delight this year, requires supreme dedication to become almost peerless across cycling’s different disciplines. You need to achieve the sheer levels of raw power and technical excellence required to dominate the time trials, borderline inhuman power-to-weight ratios to ride up mountain passes that more closely resemble walls than they do roads, the tactical nous to know how and when to exploit the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and the others around you, and you need the charisma to persuade some of the world’s top riders to sacrifice their own ambitions in pursuit of yours. Lance did this seven times with many believing a needle gave him that ability.
Weeks before Bradley Wiggins won just his first yellow jersey he was subject to mumblings in the French press about the source of his meteoric rise. Ever since the great rise of EPO in the 1990s riders have had to prove themselves not just on the road but in the lab as well. Fast forward to 2012 and Lance has, by his own admission, given up his fight against those who claim his achievement is simply too great to have been done through honest blood, sweat and tears alone.
That’s not to say the journey from aggressive cancer sufferer to multiple champion necessarily takes in another stage to the land of the disgraced drug cheat. Whilst the USADA claims a landmark victory, and one which seems to have been the organisation’s overriding concern for the last five years, it’s not necessarily race over for Armstrong. WADA have had their say with their chief, John Fahey, wanting to see his titles “obliterated”. Bleak as this might look for seven-time champion Armstrong (who is looking set to be re-named ‘doping-cheat Armstrong’), it is by no means the end of the story. The UCI, professional cycling’s world governing body, has at no stage backed the USADA campaign against Armstrong and they have released numerous cagey responses to the USADA’s claims of an ultimate victory. During Lance’s bid to have the case against him thrown out of court it was him that the UCI lent their backing to and now in light of the latest developments they are merely waiting for USADA’s evidence as the cycling world eagerly awaits their response.
These are murky and largely untested waters for the world of sports law. Never before has cycling, with more than its fair share of doping anecdotes, encountered this perfect storm of potential controversy. Lance is refusing to answer charges levied against him by his national anti-doping agency which he believes are part of a vendetta. His legal challenge to these charges was supported by the UCI but was ultimately unsuccessful. Armstrong, quite possibly correctly, believes that the USADA has no remit to strip any titles from him. Even if they do it also seems that they can only strip him of his last two titles because of rules over how far into the past they can prosecute athletes despite alleging use of EPO, steroids and blood transfusions all the way back to 1996, three years before he won his first Tour.
At the least his titles are tarnished, but then again they always were. His statement makes clear that his decision not to answer allegations can be read as a response to decades of haranguing from journalists and other hangers on. Lance, with over 500 clean tests to his name, has been fighting implicit and explicit doping accusations for almost fifteen years. It is worth remembering also that cycling is a sport in which many of the greats have been discredited. Merckx, Simpson, Contador and Anquetil just a few names that have adorned cycling’s most coveted trophies only to encounter controversy and worse as a result of their relationships with performance-enhancing drugs. Maybe it’s just the nature of cycling which leads you down one of two paths. Either cycling is so riven with drugs it is impossible to do the impossible without being labelled a cheat (the pro-Armstrong view). Or cycling is so riven with drugs it is impossible to do the impossible without the aid of a man in a white coat (everyone else’s view). In the coming months it looks like the rule books will decide and, just maybe, the history books will be rewritten.