Cheating of the highest order

When sporting icons fall from a pedestal, especially on a doping charge, there is a feeling of revulsion, a sense of having been let down by your hero, writes K.P. Mohan.

“Finally, the last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe it. You should believe in these athletes… And there are no secrets; this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it.”

That was Lance Armstrong on the podium at the Champs Elysees, Paris, after his unbelievable seventh Tour de France victory on July 24, 2005.

Today, the man stands exposed as one of the shrewdest and shameless ‘dope cheats’ in the world of sports. Cycling has taken its biggest hit in its long history of dope-tainted stars.

All these years, when allegations were hurled at him, the American would hit back and point out the hundreds of dope tests he had undergone and tell the world that he was always “clean”. Today, after the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) brought out its devastating 1000-plus-page evidence to nail the greatest Tour de France champion that he was, people are no longer feeling sorry for Armstrong.

We know the ‘secrets’ he talked about.

The awe that he evoked when he came back from cancer to script a new chapter in the annals of athletic feats has turned into contempt. When sporting icons fall from a pedestal, especially on a doping charge, there is a feeling of revulsion, a sense of having been let down by your hero, having been cheated by someone who you thought was immortal; someone who always stuck to the highest ethical standards and won fair and square.

If Armstrong stays in memory through the next few decades it will not be for his undying spirit that brought him back from cancer to tackle the most arduous cycling event, spread over 3200km and 23 days, not even because of his pioneering work to help cancer patients, but because he turned out to be a dope cheat just as many others before and after him were.

The Armstrong doping saga is one of deceit, intimidation of team-mates, journalists and witnesses, suppression of truth and obstruction of judicial process. He has been charged with use of banned substances, without having tested positive, trafficking in banned drugs, blood doping and evasion of testers, among others,

The USADA imposed a life-ban on him and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles in August following its investigations lasting more than two years. The International Cycling Union (UCI) endorsed that decision in October after the American agency provided its “reasoned decision” supported by a voluminous bunch of sworn affidavits from more than two dozen witnesses including 11 of Armstrong’s team-mates in the U. S. Postal Service (USPS)/Discovery Pro Cycling Team, copies of emails, scientific data and test results.

From the evidence presented by the USADA it is clear that Armstrong not only indulged in doping practices almost throughout his career but also encouraged others to do it and enforced a doping regimen in the USPS team.

Those who came in his way were persuaded or threatened to fall in line; those who tried to expose him were intimidated, harassed or sued.

Those of us who might not have kept track of doping allegations against Armstrong could get the impression that all on a sudden a bunch of cyclists had come forward to malign the ‘greatest’ champion the history of cycling had known. That would be far removed from truth.

The truth is from 1999 when he won his first Tour de France title after he underwent testicular cancer treatment from 1996, doping suspicions were very much part of the Armstrong folklore.

An investigation by French authorities in 2000 against the USPS team after a TV channel reported that a team vehicle had dumped “suspicious” packages was dropped for lack of evidence two years later.

In several of the affidavits obtained by the USADA it has now been established that the packages did contain a large quantity of banned substances, as corroborated by his team-mates, and the team had been tipped off on that occasion that there was to be a ‘raid’ at the hotel.

Sunday Times sports correspondent David Walsh, who was to pen the controversial book about Armstrong, L. A. Confidentiel, with French journalist Pierre Ballester in 2004, took on Armstrong on the French investigation without making much headway in 2001.

Walsh was to play a major part in Armstrong’s destiny, persisting with his pursuit of truth about the American’s doping practices. L. A. Confidentiel was released only in French as Armstrong’s battery of lawyers ensured that the publishers would not be able to bring out an English version because of the stringent British libel laws.

The Sunday Times carried an article by Walsh in which some of the allegations made in the book were published. Armstrong sued the paper and eventually it had to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with the cyclist in 2006.

Armstrong’s lawyers also sued the publishers of the book in France and sought to insert a denial in the book through a court order that was not granted. The French defamation suit was also dropped in 2006.

As the Armstrong ban was confirmed by the UCI the other day, there were several people, apart from the USADA chief Travis Tygart, whom Armstrong had accused of launching a “witch-hunt”, who felt vindicated at last.

Not just Walsh but other journalists, too, notably Paul Kimmage, a three-time Tour de France participant and another Irish sports journalist, like Walsh, who worked for the Sunday Times till early 2012 and who pursued the ‘Armstrong doping angle’ for years.

“Because the Armstrong story was deemed to be so good, so remarkable, an inspiration to countless millions, who wants to rain on that parade?” Walsh told an interviewer recently.

There was Emma O’Reilly, the Irish masseuse who worked with U. S. Postal and who told Walsh that she had made clandestine trips to transport what she thought were banned doping substances for the use of Armstrong and Co.

“Lance tried to make my life a living hell,” she told the New York Times after the USADA action. “Talking about it now opened the wound a bit,” she said. “But I think in the long run it will be good, because something needed to be done.”

And then there were Frankie Andreu, longtime friend and team-mate, and his wife Betsy who corroborated evidence related to Armstrong’s cancer treatment in 1996, the questions raised by the doctors at that time and the cyclist’s answers.

When the doctor asked Armstrong at the Indiana University hospital whether he had taken any performance-enhancing substances, Armstrong answered that he had taken EPO, testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone and steroids, according to Betsy, then Andreu’s fiancée.

She had said this earlier; she repeated it to the USADA in her affidavit. In later conversation with Andreu, there is a suggestion by Betsy that Armstrong might have got cancer because of the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Armstrong tried his best to get Betsy retract that hospital conversation account when Walsh went looking for evidence to expose him, but she refused to succumb to Armstrong’s pressure tactics, affidavits filed by Betsy and Andreu state.

Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond was another person who earned Armstrong’s ire when he commented about his relationship with Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who was under investigation in Italy then (now life-banned for his role in the USPS doping ‘conspiracy’), following a David Walsh story in the Sunday Times in 2001.

‘Who does Greg think he is, talking about Ferrari? I’m going to take him down,”Andreu says of Armstrong’s reaction in his affidavit. The New York Daily News reported that LeMond was threatened by Armstrong that he would get 10 people who would vow that LeMond had used EPO.

According to LeMond’s wife, Kathy, the Daily News reported, he even tried to bribe a former team-mate of her husband to testify that the former champion had used EPO. The rider declined the offer. LeMond had to issue an apology for his comments.

With major sponsors backing out, Armstrong obviously cannot file defamation suits all over the world against people who are now testifying against him or publishing articles against him. He has not contested the USADA or UCI decisions. He is expected to lose heavily in the coming years as more people and organizations shun him. He will now join such fallen stars like athletes Ben Johnson and Marion Jones and baseball player Barry Bonds, not to speak of some of the biggest names in cycling who were discredited well after winning the Tour de France, on the list of “great athletes” who were ‘cheats’.