CARLO COCK

“Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling. He deserves to be forgotten from the sport.” Those were the words of Pat McQuaid, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) president, on Monday 22 October as the sport’s world governing body announced it had accepted the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) decision to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him from the sport for life.

The UCI’s announcement was a response to the findings of a two-year investigation by USADA, which concluded that Armstrong and his US Postal and Discovery Channel teams colluded in what it called “the biggest doping conspiracy in the history of sport”.

The report, based on sworn testimony from several of Armstrong’s former team mates (not the results of any new doping tests conducted on Armstrong’s old blood or urine samples), states that Armstrong used banned substances, including the blood-booster EPO and steroids, as well as blood transfusions dating back to 1996. The report also labels Armstrong a “serial cheat who led the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”.

Allegations of doping have dogged Armstrong’s career ever since he made a miraculous return to cycling, having survived testicular cancer. The American has had to defend himself against claims of doping dating back to his involvement with controversial Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari. Despite constant accusations, Armstrong, through an aggressive PR campaign and the success of his Livestrong foundation, has managed to maintain his squeaky-clean image as a heroic cancer survivor and sporting idol – until now.

He has vehemently denied claims of doping and taken legal action against anyone and everyone who has previously accused him of it.

Now, though, it seems that Armstrong has finally given up. Following USADA’s ruling Armstrong, while publicly maintaining his innocence, decided to not officially challenge the USADA sanctions. In a statement, Armstrong said that USADA had engaged in “an unconstitutional witch hunt” based on “outlandish and heinous claims”. He added that he would have been more than willing to fight the charges, but that USADA’s “one-sided and unfair” arbitration process was not worth the toll it would take on his foundation and on his family.

Twenty-six of Armstrong’s former team mates testified against him. Most significantly, Armstrong’s self-confessed “most loyal” teammate, George Hincapie, admitted that Armstrong pressured his team mates to dope. Staff members of the former US Postal Team also signed affidavits in which they confirmed that an organised doping system was covered up.

While Armstrong faces a life-time ban from competitive cycling, his former team mates turned whistleblowers were handed much lighter bans of six months to one year. However, they will no longer hold titles which they won while riding for the US Postal team, which later became the Discovery Channel team, or Astana, which Armstrong joined when he returned to cycling in 2008. Hincapie and Michael Barry will retire. Matt White, another former UP Postal rider, has been fired from his position as team manager from Cycling Australia and the Orica-GreenEdge team, and Bobby Julich has been released from his contracts with both Team Sky and the American cycling federation.

While McQuaid has strongly condemned Armstrong, he has also questioned the fairness and logic of the bans handed to Armstrong’s former team mates. McQuaid criticised Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, two of Armstrong’s team mates, who tested positive for banned substances. Both originally denied that they used drugs, but wrote books while they served their suspensions in which they admitted guilt. Former UCI president Hein Verbruggen has been accused by the cycling fraternity of covering up positive drug tests from Armstrong’s team: he allegedly warned Armstrong when he would be tested. Verbruggen has denied the claims and is pursuing a defamation case against journalist Paul Kimmage for reporting on this.

Armstrong has lost not only his Tour de France titles but all competitive titles from August 1 1998 up to the present.

But does his punishment seem harsh when compared to other sportsmen found guilty of doping, especially considering the fact that he has never actually tested positive for a banned substance? Landis, for example, who was found guilty of doping in 2006 and stripped of his Tour de France title from that year, was only handed a two-year ban for testosterone doping.

Despite his continued denial of any wrongdoing, the fallout of the USADA and UCI rulings has hit Armstrong hard. A week prior to the UCI announcement he stepped down as chairman of his Livestrong foundation and was dropped by long-time sponsors Nike, Oakley and RadioShack. Armstrong also removed his Tour de France titles from his Twitter biography the day after the UCI’s announcement.

Whether Armstrong really was the mastermind behind a massive doping conspiracy or is just a victim of a witch hunt, one thing is certain: he has gone from being an inspirational sporting hero to a global poster boy for doping. His image as one of the most admired sportsmen in the world has been irreparably tarnished.

Photo: media.npr.org

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