Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lance Armstrong: Fraud for the Public Good

Sports Illustrated recently published a whole slew of new allegations against Lance Armstrong.  They're pretty damning.  Among the allegations:  A world renowned antidoping doctor, Donald Catlin, failed to report three urine samples from the mid 1990s, allegedly coming from Armstrong, that were positive for elevated levels of testosterone; Armstrong gained access to and used a discontinued drug called HemAssist (initially intended for trauma victims with extreme blood loss) to boost his blood's oxygen-carrying capacity; Specific accusations and anecdotes from former Armstrong teammates, aides, and confidantes.  Much of the information in the SI story comes from anonymous sources, and most of the accusations come from people spurned by Armstrong. 

There is still no positive test, no smoking gun, but in the end, it may not matter.  Lance Armstrong is approaching a tipping point (if he hasn't reached it already), where the sheer volume of accusations and circumstantial evidence will overwhelm the need for solid proof or a positive test.  We long ago reached that point with a whole generation of baseball stars.  These allegations may not be enough to get Armstrong thrown in jail, but it seems likely that they'll get him indicted by a federal grand jury, and they almost certainly point towards his guilt in the court of public opinion.

Almost all of the new evidence against Armstrong is a result of an FDA investigation led by Jeff Novitzky, the man who investigated BALCO, had Marion Jones convicted, and got Barry Bonds indicted.  Novitzky's investigation stems from emails sent by Floyd Landis to cycling officials in 2010.  In the messages, Landis admits doping and also points a finger at Armstrong, his former teammate.  Now, an illegitimate messenger doesn't necessarily invalidate the message, but it is difficult to imagine a messenger with less credibility than Floyd Landis.

Stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for a positive drug test, Landis steadfastly maintained his innocence for nearly four years.  Landis appealed his positive test with the United Cycling Union, the US Anti Doping Agency, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and finally in U.S. Federal Court.  He solicited donations through a non-profit, the Floyd Fairness Fund, to pay his legal defense and he co-authored a book, Positively False, to defend himself.  In February of 2010 a French judge issued a warrant for Landis' arrest for allegedly hacking into the computers of a French anti-doping lab.  Finally on May 20, 2010, after four years of constant and consistent lying, Landis admitted doping and made similar charges against Armstrong.  The irony is obvious.  After years of defending his reputation against all comers, Lance Armstrong may end up being discredited by the least credible accuser he has ever had.

In his record seven Tour de France victories, Lance Armstrong shared the podium with eight riders.  Of those eight, six (Alex Zulle, Jan Ullrich, Raimondas Rumsas, Alexandre Vinokourov, Andreas Kloden, and Ivan Basso) have been suspended or fined for doping, and a seventh (Joseba Beloki) was implicated by Spanish police before being cleared.  During his prime, nearly every one of Armstrong's rivals was suspended for doping.  In addition to those already mentioned, they include: Marco Pantani, Richard Virenque, Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu, David Millar, Roberto Heras, Iban Mayo, and Michael Rasmussen.

So, if Armstrong is indeed found guilty, he's guilty of being an active participant in a thoroughly corrupt sport.  It isn't, as Armstrong foe Greg Lemond has put it, "The greatest fraud in the history of sport."  It just means that Lance Armstrong is ethically equivalent with the vast majority of elite cyclists of the last couple decades.  Is it really worth the FDA's time and money to knock Armstrong off his pedestal?  There's always value in uncovering the truth, but perhaps Armstrong's is that rarest of doping cases where, if he is guilty, the ends justified the means.

Let's assume Armstrong returns from cancer in 1998 and never wins anything.  He probably leads SportsCenter when the 1999 Tour de France begins.  He's probably on the evening news a few times, and there are a few major magazine features written about him.  He certainly never becomes a national celebrity.  He probably still starts a foundation to fight cancer, but without the fame and notoriety that comes with winning it never gets anywhere near as big.  It certainly doesn't raise $325 million to fight cancer.  There aren't presidential candidates wearing yellow rubber bands in solidarity with cancer victims.  Perhaps most importantly, those battling cancer lose their most notable icon, a role model for many, an advocate for all.  If Lance Armstrong never wins anything, he's no different than Jon Lester or Eric Davis--an athlete who returned to his sport after beating cancer.  He's a nice story, but not an inspiring one--the man with a ten percent chance to live who beat cancer in his testicles, abdomen, lungs, and brain and went on to win the world's most difficult race seven times.

There's certainly a case to be made that even if Lance Armstrong did cheat, it resulted in far more good than harm.  If he did cheat he did perpetrate a fraud (not the "greatest fraud in the history of sport," but a fraud nonetheless) on the general public.  That would put him in good company with the two other most dominant athletes of his generation.

For years the media spoke in glowing terms of Michael Jordan's near pathological competitiveness.  He won not just because he was more talented but because he wanted it so much more than everyone else, because he couldn't stand to lose.  That's all true, but what wasn't talked about was how Jordan's pathological intensity made him such an ass.  Jordan would take the smallest perceived slight and use it as an excuse to shatter a teammate's confidence.  After Jordan the GM drafted Kwame Brown first overall for the Wizards, he went on to so demoralize and humiliate Brown in scrimmages that Brown's career never recovered.  Jordan's public veneer wasn't revealed for the charade that it's always been until his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech.  After being introduced as the greatest who ever lived, Jordan couldn't keep himself from trying to settle scores with long vanquished foes: Isiah Thomas, Bulls GM Jerry Krause, his high school coach, Jeff Van Gundy, Bryon Russell and others.  He looks petty, vindictive, and small.  

Tiger Woods' recent travails are much documented.  Suffice it to say that Tiger's public persona has also been revealed as a fraud.

There are two key differences between the frauds that Jordan and Woods have presented and the fraud that a doping conviction would reveal in Lance Armstrong.  First, and importantly, Jordan and Woods presented themselves as frauds, but they didn't cheat.  They won their titles within the rules.  If Lance Armstrong is found guilty of doping, the same can't be said about him.  But, if all three are found to be frauds, only Lance Armstrong can say that his faults were in service of a greater good.  Jordan's spiteful competitiveness served his own need to win first, and Nike's need to sell shoes second.  He infamously refused to say anything political because, "Republicans buy sneakers too."  Tiger, Nike's greatest salesman since Jordan, is cut from the same mold.  While claiming in a Nike ad that, "There are still courses in the U.S. that I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin," Tiger simultaneously refused to weigh in when Augusta National was accused of not allowing female members.

Let's be clear:  For Jordan, Woods, and Armstrong--arguably the three most dominant athletes of their generation--the first priority was always winning.  In winning a combined 27 championships/majors/Tours de France, it's likely that each one may have, to some extent, played a charade on the general public.  But, whereas Jordan and Woods' secondary aim (after winning) was only selling Nikes, Lance Armstrong's alleged fraud helped raise $325 million dollars to fight a deadly disease and turned him into the world's greatest anti-cancer crusader.

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