Mother of all doping scandals

The Lance Armstrong doping scandal was not just a blow to the American or his legion of fans; it was a blow to cycling, perhaps to sport as a whole, writes K. P. Mohan.

The biggest doping scandal of the year brought down an iconic figure in the world of sport. After a two-year investigation, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) branded Lance Armstrong a dope cheat, banned him for life and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles.

This was not just a blow to Armstrong or his legion of fans; it was a blow to cycling, perhaps to sport as a whole. When stars like Armstrong are categorised as ‘cheats’ you tend to lose faith in any superhuman performance.

Not that cycling has been ‘clean’; far from it. In fact, it has been one of the most dope-tainted sports for more than a decade now. Past the Miguel Indurain era in 1995, the Tour de France has had a dope cheat right at the top up to 2007 when Alberto Contador won. Contador went onto win in 2009 and 2010 also but then, he was caught in the anti-doping net.

It was another Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, also a dope offender, who was disqualified in 2006, who set in motion the investigations against Armstrong, by writing to the USADA in May 2010. Landis had been a member of the US Postal Service team that Armstrong rode for and commanded and he testified that Armstrong had resorted to blood transfusions and supplied EPO (erythropoietin) to him.

The USADA investigations followed a Federal investigation into allegations that Armstrong and the USPS team had indulged in doping practices, at the cost of public exchequer. The dropping of the Federal investigations, the reasons for which were never explained, might have temporarily at least given a ‘reprieve’ to Armstrong, who had fought off doping allegations almost throughout his career, but the USADA chief, Travis Tygart, stood firm.

The USADA not only concluded its investigations, it also brought forward an enormous amount of evidence to prove that Armstrong had indulged in doping, supervised a doping programme, was involved in trafficking of banned substances and lied through the course of various investigations.

From the time that he won his first of seven Tour titles in 1999, the USADA evidences showed that Armstrong had resorted to doping practices. Testimony from his team-mates, especially Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, David Zabriskie, George Hincapie and Landis, implicated him beyond escape. Hincapie, incidentally, was with Armstrong through his seven Tour wins, often riding alongside him. His testimony was considered the final nail on the coffin.

Armstrong tried to block the USADA proceedings through a court injunction but failed, and then when the agency brought up the charges against him, he refused to go through a hearing process saying that he could not expect justice in a “witch hunt” launched by Tygart.

The international federation (UCI), which tried to side with the American in the court proceedings when he argued that the USADA had no jurisdiction to bring charges against him for offences committed in international competitions in the past, eventually concurred with the USADA decision and banned the “great cyclist” for life, apart from taking away his seven Tour titles and disqualifying all other results, dating back to August 1, 1998. The UCI’s role during the investigations as well as its apparently ‘passive’ stance during the height of Armstrong’s manoeuvrings came in for criticism from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Could it be that an icon who gave hope to thousands of cancer patients around the world not just through his Foundation, Livestrong, but also through his awesome feat of fighting back from the dreaded disease to win seven Tour de France titles be a dope cheat?

His admirers including those in the media do not believe even now that Armstrong was guilty of such a terrible fraud in a glittering career, which also saw him take the Olympic bronze in Sydney. That medal is under a separate enquiry by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is expected to strip him of that honour also. (At the time of writing this story, the IOC decision was awaited and Armstrong had about a fortnight’s time to prefer an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) against the ruling by the UCI to ban him and disqualify his results.)

The damaging evidence was so bad that there were suggestions that Armstrong’s cancer could have been the result of his drug abuse. There were other accounts that gave an insight into his power that threatened officials, competitors, masseurs and other support personnel and effectively silenced journalists who ventured out to expose him.

But there were courageous exceptions. Two such journalists, David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, of the Sunday Times pursued their probes almost throughout, finally feeling vindicated that what they had always tried to tell had come true and had been proved.

The Armstrong doping saga should rank alongside the Ben Johnson scandal and the BALCO affair — which among others exposed US sprinter Marion Jones — in terms of the impact it had through the sports world. Following Armstrong’s indictment, several of the cyclists of his era, plus officials and others came forward to confess that they, too, were involved in doping programmes. At least six of his team-mates were suspended for confessions.

Two other members of the USPS team, Dr. Michele Ferrari and Dr. Garcia del Moral, also received lifetime bans for perpetrating the doping conspiracy. The team received millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, according to the USADA statement. Ferrari has since denied his role in the conspiracy.

Elsewhere in the world of anti-doping, the positive test return by woman shotput champion Nadezhda Ostapchuk of Belarus and her subsequent disqualification and promotion of New Zealander Valerie Adams to the gold was the only talking point at the London Olympics. Well after the Games, Russian silver winning discus thrower, Darya Pischalnikova was also reported for an infraction — not at the Games — but it was not clear whether the infringement would affect her Olympic medal.

Only eight ‘positive’ cases were recorded at the Olympics, a poor count, with only two coming from in-competition testing and the others emanating from pre-competition testing.

Before the year was out, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that four of the medallists at the Athens Olympic Games were found ‘positive’ in re-tests of stored samples conducted by it.

The four were Ukraine’s shotput champion Yuriy Bilonog, Russian Svetlana Krivelyova, woman shotput bronze medallist, and Belarus woman discus thrower Irina Yatchenko who also won the bronze, and Belarus hammer thrower Ivan Tsikhan, who took the men’s silver. There was also a case involving an unnamed athlete that was pending disposal.