An affirmation of guilt

Armstrong in a happy mood in the company of his children, son Luke and twin daughters Isabelle and Grace, after winning his seventh straight Tour de France title in 2005. What will they be thinking of him now?-AP ?

Sitting before Oprah Winfrey recently, Lance Armstrong finally admitted, after years of vociferous denial, that his successes had been founded on deceit, that he had been lying all along. But for the sport, and for the likes of honest competitors, these words have come too late, says Shreedutta Chidananda.

When customs officials on the Belgian-French border held Willy Voet, the soigneur of the Festina team, with a car-trunk full of drugs three days before the start of the 1998 Tour de France, they triggered off a chain of events that rattled cycling to its core. The longer the race — variously dubbed the Tour du Dopage and the Tour of Shame — went on, the more apparent it became that doping in the sport was frighteningly widespread.

Amidst the gloom of the (grandly-named) Festina Affair, though, shone out one bright spot. Christophe Bassons, it emerged, had been the only ‘clean’ rider on the Festina team. The following year, the Frenchman was cast as the poster-boy for anti-doping campaigners on the Tour. “It was satisfying, because for three years I had resisted pressure to dope,” Bassons said of that period in an interview with Bicycling.com. “With the Festina Affair, we were able to reset the clocks for a while, and personally I was solicited a lot to give my opinion… It was important to talk about it so that we didn’t go down the same path.”

Bassons’s new-found outspokenness, though, didn’t go down well with everyone. When, in his columns with the French daily Le Parisien, he expressed shock at the speed of the peloton (implying the obvious), Bassons was bullied (publicly on Stage 10), ostracised, and pitched out of the Tour de France a sobbing wreck. “I was depressed for 6 months. I was crying all of the time. I was in a really bad way,” he told BBC Radio Five Live. The 1999 Tour had been labelled the ‘Tour of Renewal’; it was anything but. Leading Bassons’s harassment had been the man who’d go on to win the race that year, a first of seven occasions; a man the world has come to know considerably better today: Lance Armstrong.

Sitting before Oprah Winfrey recently, Armstrong finally admitted, after years of vociferous denial, that his successes had been founded on deceit, that he had been lying all along. “When I say that there are people that will hear this and will never forgive me, I understand that,” he said. “I think all of this is a process for me. One of the steps of that process is to speak to those people directly, and just say to them that I am sorry, and I was wrong. You were right.” For the sport, and for the likes of Bassons, these words have come too late.

Cycling was at a crossroads after Festina: one route wound its way uphill, but towards a sunny future; the other led effortlessly down the same dark slope. With his significant influence on the peloton, Armstrong could’ve chosen to go — and helped take the sport — one way. He didn’t, instead opting to attack the few that resisted. The rest is a giant, festering blot on the sport’s history.

At first after 1998, Bassons noted, it was only some riders or teams like Armstrong’s U.S. Postal that continued doping on the same ‘industrial scale’. There was opportunity for change; it had been spurned. “Big efforts had been made, but unfortunately they didn’t go far enough,” he said. “… The differences became flagrant. And so doping slowly gained ground again. It’s like a speed trap on the highway: At first you slow down, but then after a few minutes you start speeding up again.”

It is perhaps unfair to tie the millstone of blame entirely around the American’s neck. The culture of taking drugs had been so deeply ingrained in professional cycling that battle was difficult. Financial rewards for rider and team were immense (Bassons was on 30,000 francs a month; identified as a rider with potential, he was offered 300,000 by Festina to go on an EPO diet), and nobody was willing to step back.

Besides, they would not have succeeded if the system had not been as acquiescent. True dope-control mechanisms weren’t adequate and the media could have been more vigilant, but the role of the governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), should come under the greatest examination.

As the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) noted last October, in its report that conclusively blew the lid off the whole thing, the UCI was reluctant to follow up on reports of dishonesty in the sport, instead choosing to deny it outright. The President Pat McQuaid dismissed Floyd Landis’s accusations out of hand, USADA observes scathingly, while the Honorary President Hein Verbruggen, who held the top post during Armstrong’s ‘glory’ years, went further. “I repeat again: Lance Armstrong has never used doping,” the agency quotes Verbruggen as responding to Tyler Hamilton’s claims on TV in 2011. “Never, never, never. And I say this not because I am a friend of his, because that is not true. I say it because I’m sure.”

The USADA also wonders how Armstrong and his team evaded testers successfully for so long. In his testimony, the Texan’s former team-mate Jonathan Vaughters reveals that “the Postal Service staff, including (team director) Johan [Bruyneel] and the soigneurs seemed to have an outstanding early warning system regarding drug tests. We typically seemed to have an hour’s advance notice prior to tests. There was plenty of time in advance of tests to use saline to decrease our hematocrit level.”

Then there lingers the matter of Armstrong’s alleged covered-up positive EPO test from the Tour of Switzerland in 2001 and the reported subsequent donation of up to 200,000 USD to the UCI.

At best, the UCI is guilty of nodding off when it was supposed to watch the house. At worst, it didn’t just choose to look away but was thoroughly complicit; Armstrong was cycling, and any devaluation of the brand was going to cause big financial hurt.

The price cycling has eventually paid has been incalculable. Trust, that most fundamental of premises on which all competition – and all sport – rests, has been savagely eroded. It will be long before any major cycling triumph can be viewed without any suspicion. Besides, innumerable careers have been smothered in their infancy.

“When Lance cries on Oprah later this week and she passes him a tissue, spare a thought for all of those genuine people who walked away with no reward — just shattered dreams,” the Welsh Olympic gold-medallist Nicole Cooke remarked in her strident retirement statement earlier this month. “Each one of them is worth a 1,000 Lances. Many of these people have had to leave the sport with nothing after a lifetime of hard work.”

The road ahead for the sport will be a rough one. The IOC member and former WADA chief Dick Pound has spoken of dropping cycling from the Olympic programme. Sponsors are, no doubt, feeling jittery. Fans are hurt and incensed (or they’re apathetic already, which is worse). Doping controls need to be stepped up and Armstrong, should he co-operate with investigators, must implicate anyone guilty if he wishes to clean up a sport he affirms he loves.

Difficulties have emerged swiftly: the UCI constituted an independent commission in the wake of the Reasoned Decision, but could not agree with WADA and USADA on the terms of reference, and the agencies have hit out at each other through press releases.

It is imperative that everybody pulls in the same direction. Hope needs to be restored to people like Cooke. “I do despair that the sport will ever clean itself up when rewards of stealing are greater than riding clean,” she said. “If that remains the case, the temptation for those with no morals will always be too great.”