Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inside USADA’s Armstrong Doping Report

Lance Armstrong had a great story. World class athlete is struck low by metastasizing cancer and given only fifty-fifty odds to live. He suffers through surgery and chemotherapy. He survives. And then he thrives, his body leaner and stronger, his mind and will hardened. He returns to his sport and dominates the most grueling athletic competition in the world. He stakes his claim as one of the great athletes in history and in the process inspires millions the world over with his legend of fight, survival, and triumph. He founds an organization in his name and becomes a tireless crusader in the battle to eradicate the illness that nearly ended his life. His is a hero. But this great story was too good to be true.

Rumors of doping have swirled around Armstrong since he won his first Tour de France in 1999, but like Teflon, nothing seemed to stick. Armstrong never tested positive for drugs – or so he claimed – and he was never caught with drugs or paraphernalia or anything else that could link him directly to doping. He denied ever using illicit substances and even claimed that as a cancer survivor he would never put potentially dangerous substances into his body. (You can read about Armstrong’s career here, and see my post from last spring detailing the many doping rumors that have plagued him since at least his first Tour de France victory.)

The release of the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) Armstrong Report1 seems to have converted rumor to fact, and it’s no longer credible to label Armstrong a great champion or a hero, at least not for his exploits on a bicycle. The Armstrong Report – all 200 plus pages of it – lays bare Armstrong’s career-long record of doping. But it goes further. According to USADA, not only did Armstrong dope but he was the leader in his team’s sophisticated doping program, a program that he was central in developing, managing, and enforcing; while, of course, repeatedly and forcefully denying it ever existed. Armstrong maintains that he has a clean record, never once failing a drug test or demonstrating any dubious spikes in performance. The Armstrong Report tears these arguments to shreds.

From the Armstrong Report:
“The evidence is overwhelming that Lance Armstrong did not just use performance enhancing drugs, he supplied them to his teammates. He did not merely go alone to Dr. Michele Ferrari for doping advice, he expected that others would follow. It was not enough that his teammates give maximum effort on the bike, he also required them to adhere to the doping program outlined for them or be replaced. He was not just a part of the doping culture on his team, he enforced and re-enforced it. Armstrong’s use of drugs was extensive, and the doping program on his team, designed in large part to benefit Armstrong, was massive and pervasive.” – Pages 6-7

The Armstrong Report also exposes Armstrong’s fundamental character flaws: his tendency to deny his actions, malign his accusers, threaten witnesses, turn on friends, and do anything to win. Even Armstrong’s ardent defenders must concede that he’s a tough man and you cross him at your own risk. It’s his character traits that make his cheating all the more believable. Indeed, it’s likely that for Armstrong doping was just one more activity he needed to master to become the best cyclist. If everyone else was cheating – or if cheating would get you ahead – then Armstrong would cheat, just like he would train harder than anyone, or become the finest tactician in the peleton.

USADA’s Specific Allegations and Evidence
The USADA has charged Armstrong with (1) use of prohibited substances, (2) possession of prohibited substances, (3) trafficking of prohibited substances, (4) administration of prohibited substances to others, (5) “assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting, covering up, and other complicity involving one or more anti-doping rule violations”, and (6) “aggravating circumstances…justifying a period of ineligibility greater than the standard sanction”. To back up these charges they have detailed a remarkable catalog of cheating by Armstrong and his team, which includes:

Witness testimony. Much of USADA’s charges are based on the sworn affidavits of 26 people connected with Armstrong throughout his career including 15 professional cyclists and 11 former teammates. The teammates includes admitted dopers Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, who Armstrong has denounced as biased and “proven liars”, but also George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, Jonathan Vaughters, and Christian Vande Velde, each of whom have no axe to grind, and in fact have much to lose from admitting their own past doping. Hincapie, especially, has always been close to Armstrong, referring to Hincapie as “like a brother”.

These 26 witnesses provided USADA with first-hand accounts of their doping while on Armstrong’s teams, his own doping as witnessed by them, the leadership position Armstrong assumed in his team’s doping programs, and the logistical and material support he provided for his doping and that of his teammates.

Chronology of cheating. USADA lays out a compelling timeline of specific events and activities that demonstrates rules violations, doping, trafficking, and related activities for every year from 1998 through 2005, and then again in 2009 and 2010 when Armstrong returned from his first retirement. The Armstrong Report details where Armstrong was when he doped, be it in competition or in training, who he was with, what drugs he used, and how those drugs were transported and distributed

Blood doping
Drug use and doping. The Armstrong Report includes intricate details of Armstrong’s extensive use of the blood booster EPO, testosterone, steroids, and Actovegin, to name only the major drugs. USADA shows Armstrong’s use of blood doping, which consists of getting a transfusion of your own blood weeks or months after that same blood was removed from your body for the hemoglobin boosting effects. The report includes lurid details like Armstrong having a secret refrigerator in his Spanish apartment where he stored blood (and not just his own) for future transfusions, of he and teammates going on a training ride shortly after having blood removed and being so weak they could barely pedal, and of Armstrong organizing covert rendezvous on remote European mountain passes to receive drugs or medical/doping advice from his long-time doctor Michele Ferrari (see below)

One of Armstrong’s most repeated claims is that he never once failed any of the 500 to 600 drug tests he received throughout his career. USADA demonstrates that the actual number of tests was only half as many as claimed, and in fact Armstrong did test positive on a number of occasions. Armstrong’s “B” urine samples from the 1999 Tour were tested along with many other samples by a French lab in 2004 after a test for EPO had been developed (the test results became public in 2005). Tests for EPO were not available in 1999. Six of his urine samples from the 1999 Tour tested positive for EPO. This could not be used officially against him because the corresponding “A” samples had been destroyed per standard procedure, but there is little scientific reason to doubt the test results. Armstrong tested positive for cortisone during the 1999 Tour, which he explained away at the time as resulting from a topical cream used to treat a saddle sore. In fact, the prescription for cortisone cream was written by the team doctor after the positive test (and backdated) and the actual test results were consistent with a drug injection and not a topical cream. Further, during the 2001 Tour de Suisse, one of Armstrong’s blood samples tested positive for EPO, but at the time the testing results indicated only a “probability” of doping and not a “positive” result.  Under today’s standards it would have been a positive result (more on this below).

Armstrong, aided by his long-time team manager Johan Bruyneel, was clinical about doping. He was acutely aware of his own blood levels and when he needed more EPO or a blood transfusion. He and Bruyneel closely monitored each team members’ blood levels and doping schedules.

Armstrong’s doping extended over international borders, ranging from his apartments and training routes in Spain and France, to Ferrari’s home nation of Italy, the Atlantic island of Tenerife, and the United States. He arranged for couriers to smuggle drugs along race routes and across borders. He stored them in his apartments and in team vehicles. In addition, Armstrong was the main conduit for his teammates’ drugs, often supplying them at request.

Michele Ferrari leaving and Italian courtroom
Relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari. Armstrong had a long and very expensive relationship with convicted sports doper Dr. Michele Ferrari. Both the nature of this relationship and Ferrari’s long involvement with doping are covered in detail in the report. Over the course of his career Armstrong paid Ferrari, who he affectionately called “Schumi”, over one million dollars. It was Ferrari who developed and continually refined Armstrong’s doping programs from the use of EPO and testosterone to a blood doping routine, who worked at Armstrong’s behest with other riders on similar doping programs, and who was present at many training camps in preparation for Armstrong’s early Tours.

USADA establishes that Armstrong maintained his relationship with Ferrari even after the Italian was convicted in Italy for sports fraud and after Armstrong had publicly declared that he would sever his relationship with the now publicly disgraced doctor. The report even includes a series of emails between Armstrong and Ferrari’s son (who acted as a conduit between Armstrong and Ferrari) that details in black and white how Armstrong sought and received Ferrari’s doping advice in his Tour preparation during his 2009-10 comeback.

Encouragement and Intimidation of teammates. Armstrong and Bruyneel encouraged other riders to take up doping by hyping the purported benefits for their careers, and when riders didn’t act as directed, enforced doping through intimidation. Armstrong told teammate (and friend) Frankie Andreu that he needed to “get serious” about his career and start doping. Similarly, he encouraged George Hincapie to start doping to improve his results, which the American ultimately did after years of clean riding. Bruyneel strong-armed David Zabriskie into doping even though Zabriskie had vowed never to use drugs after he had watched his father collapse into drug addiction. Armstrong threatened to throw Christian Vande Velde off the team if he didn’t start to follow the doping program established by Ferrari. Armstrong publicly and viciously denounced Andreu and his wife Betsy after she testified in a civil case that in 1996, as Armstrong was about to begin chemotherapy, she had heard him tell doctors that he had used EPO and other drugs. (USADA demonstrates that her version of events is probably correct.)

Armstrong’s bullying went beyond his own teammates. He threatened Italian rider Filippo Simeoni repeatedly after the cyclist had testified in Italian court about the doping activities of Dr. Ferrari. One famous incident, one that I remember from watching the 2004 Tour, involved in-race activity where Armstrong dogged and berated Simeoni during one of the final stages after the Italian had joined a breakaway and gave him the “zip-the-lips” gesture. The meaning was clear.

Strategies to avoid detection. USADA explains the strategies used by Armstrong and his teammates to avoid detection. The most obvious was to be unavailable. For most of Armstrong’s career there were not strong out-of-competition drug testing controls and an athlete could “disappear” for training. This is exactly what Armstrong did, training in remote locations and not informing drug control officials of his whereabouts. There was no fear of getting caught cheating when away from a race. During races and after cyclists had doped, they were instructed to not answer the door if testing officials came to their hotel, to dope late at night so they wouldn’t test positive in the morning, and there was often a team lookout watching the parking lot ready to warn the team of the (almost always obvious) arrival of testers.

The Armstrong Report makes it clear that in Armstrong’s heyday doping programs were far more sophisticated than detection programs. If testers did manage to corner Armstrong or his team, team doctors would inject saline into their cyclists’ bloodstreams to dilute the concentration of telltale doping markers in their blood. On one occasion during testing a team doctor surreptitiously carried saline past a tester and injected it into Armstrong before he was tested. Often the tests themselves were inconclusive and Ferrari, who knew the doctors who had helped to develop the anti-doping tests, knew tricks to make sure cyclists fell within the “gray area” of the tests even if they were doping, virtually guaranteeing that there wouldn’t be a clear positive.

What Happens Next?
Once the Armstrong Report is fully digested, Armstrong’s reputation will surely be ruined. Just today he received a double blow, Nike terminated his long-standing and very lucrative endorsement deal, and even more tellingly, his own foundation forced him to step down as chairman. Since 1999 Armstrong has built up a tremendous following, especially in the United States, and that following goes well beyond sports fans.2 He’s been an inspiration for cancer survivors, and millions of people sported his yellow Livestrong bracelets at some point or another. But by any rational judgment of the evidence, Armstrong has lied about his actions and cheated to achieve his success. It hurts to be lied to, even if the cynical part of some of us fostered quiet doubts about the full legitimacy of Armstrong’s accomplishments. At a minimum the goodwill that has surrounded Armstrong will be greatly eroded. Looking larger, this is just one more incident that makes us spectators a little more skeptical, a little more doubting, a little less eager to embrace athletes (or any public feature) as a hero. Armstrong isn’t the first fallen hero and he won’t be the last, but each time it happens it hurts a little bit and makes us a little more cynical. That’s not a good thing.

USADA has submitted the Armstrong Report to the UCI, cycling’s governing body. The UCI has three weeks (from last Thursday) to respond to the charges, either upholding USADA’s decision to strip Armstrong of his Tour victories and impose a lifetime ban on future competitions (for cycling and any other sport that adheres to World Anti-Doping Agency rules3). It’s hard to see how UCI could fail to uphold USADA’s decisions, but for one point. It has been alleged, and is detailed in the Armstrong Report (and noted above), that Armstrong tested positive for EPO at the 2001 Tour de Suisse, and then paid off UCI officials to suppress the test results. Armstrong did donate money to UCI, but UCI has consistently denied the positive test or that officials were bribed by Armstrong. I wouldn’t be shocked to see UCI officials deny USADA’s charges in an attempt to protect their organization and individual reputations.

Lance's seven disqualified Tour victories
What has been Lance Armstrong’s response to USADA’s allegations? For his part, Armstrong has taken a position of blanket denial, saying that none of the USADA’s charges are true and that he will not address them further. Unfortunately for him, denials are impotent in the face of such substantial and damning evidence. Armstrong must address the charges point-by-point, providing a counter or alternative explanation. If not, as is noted in the Armstrong Report, his silence is tantamount to an admission of guilt. Silence, or more accurately, feigned indifference in the face of overwhelming evidence isn’t a valid defense.

What effects might the Armstrong Report have on profession cycling? It might just be a good thing for the sport, providing closure on cycling’s era of doping.4 During Armstrong’s winning tours 1999-2005, nine men finished on the podium (top 3) at least once. Eight of the nine have been linked to doping.5  Every Tour winner from Bjarne Riis in 1996 through Alberto Contador in 2007 has been linked to doping (and Contador won in 2009 and 2010 as well). Sadly, this is the truth of the sport over the last 20 years (at least). Now with the sport’s biggest star and greatest champion cast among the cheaters, professional cycling is left with only one option: admit the sport’s disastrous history of doping and move on fully committed to clean competition. It’s a fact widely admitted that the culture of cycling condoned, and based on the Armstrong Report actually encouraged doping. A code of silence, the Omerta, forced individuals to hide the truth. It’s this culture of the sport that must change, and hopefully is changing. No matter how robust in- and out-of-competition testing is and how aggressively cheaters are pursued and punished, the riders, coaches, sponsors, and support staff are the ones who must embrace a clean sport and not tolerate doping. I hope this is happening. Cycling is a great sport and the Tour de France one of the world’s great sporting events. Maybe closure on the past will allow this cycling generation to move forward in a clean future.



1. The full title is: Report on Proceedings Under the World Anti-Doping Code and the USADA Protocol, Reasoned Decision of the United States Anti-Doping Agency on Disqualification and Ineligibility.

2. I count myself among these followers, and Armstrong was a hero of mine – was a hero of mine.

3. Armstrong has already been banned/prohibited from competing in official triathlons and marathons, his post-cycling sports of choice. He’ll likely never again compete in a profession and/or officially sanctioned athletic competition.

4. Assuming of course that that era is indeed over.

5. The lone exception is Fernando Escartin, who finished third in 1999 behind Armstrong and Alex Zulle. Such is the skeptical eye cast on all professional cyclists that noting Escartin hasn’t been linked to doping doesn’t mean he didn’t dope.

1 comment:

  1. Today the UCI, cycling's governing body, upheld USADA's findings and officially stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles. His lifetime ban was also upheld.