Is the Lance Armstrong affair a race to the bottom for cycling?

Lance Armstong’s decision not to contest USADA charges of doping has done little to quell rumours. Christophe Karaba/EPA

Lance Armstrong was no ordinary cyclist. His was a business model that changed the face of professional cycling, perfecting techniques of media management and being the vehicle by which cycling administrators globalised the sport.

It is no wonder some still go a long way to defend him or simply muddy the waters.

In 1999, when Armstrong miraculously, or incredibly – in the fullest sense of the word – was first on the road in the Tour de France, it was heralded as the Tour of Redemption.

It was a new clean start for professional cycling following the previous year’s Festina tour which saw a number of riders arrested for doping by the French police.

Among the Festina riders arrested was former Australian national road team and current GreenEdge director, Neil Stephens.

Hence, it was with a sense of déjà vu that I listened to Cycling Australia’s President Klaus Mueller claim on ABC News 24 on Saturday that “the scene has changed enormously”.

Mueller, who is also a Melbourne barrister, was at pains to stress the “uncertainty” surrounding the USADA case against the Texan.

The problem for the sceptics, or even the rational, was that the script Mueller seemed to be reading from was the same one the powers-that-be in world cycling have been using to defend Armstrong since 1999.

Mueller bemoaned “how politicised the process has been”, a reference in line with Armstrong’s own claims that he’s been the victim of a “witch hunt”.

What Mueller ignores, of course, is that it has been Armstrong and former Bill Clinton advisor Mark Fabiani who have politicised the case and exerted political pressure on the US Federal Prosecutors office to drop the criminal case which went well beyond the doping allegations.

In more recent times Armstrong, through his business networks and his cancer business Livestrong, has attempted to lobby politicians to cut funding to USADA.

Mueller’s case was further backed by his claim that the:

jurisdiction of USADA is very unclear and uncertain … that leaves everyone with a question as to the outcome. I am not sure [the USADA] has any jurisdiction … certainly the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale – world cycling’s ruling body] has that jurisdiction … they should decide".

Unfortunately, here again Mueller seemed to reading from the script of Armstrong and his allies within the International Cycling Union (UCI). The UCI, who it has been alleged have covered up positive doping tests and accepted payments from Armstrong, attempted to claim in July that they, and not USADA, had jurisdiction in the case.

USADA of course rejected the attack on their jurisdiction. The French Anti-Doping Agency claimed on Saturday that people within the UCI and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) regularly tipped off Armstrong in advance of doping controls so he could take measures to beat the testers.

Speaking plainly

But even if Mueller was still “unclear and uncertain” about the question of jurisdiction, the plain words of the World Anti-Doping Code (WADA Code) and a letter from World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Director General David Howman, himself a barrister, should have helped resolve the matter once and for all.

Howman was clear on the meaning of the rules that applied and that WADA did not agree with the public comments made by UCI regarding jurisdiction:

With respect to your [the UCI’s] statements that the UCI has results management authority in connection with the USPS Cases [US Postal Services – the cycling team Armstrong raced for from 1998 to 2004] you have misinterpreted the Code.

Mueller then raised the chestnut of “concern over process” and the “lack of transparency” and that the charges against Armstrong were not sufficient for him to “answer the case” against him.

Along with Howman’s letter to the UCI, which stated the UCI had never complained about the lack of due process in relation to USADA proceedings, there are here two obvious aspects ignored by Mueller.

  1. Only last week a US Federal Court judge dismissed Armstrong’s challenges regarding due process as being “without merit”. In case Mueller missed it, even the Herald Sun reported the story.

  2. The “concern over process” and the “lack of transparency” was based on the fact USADA had not detailed the names of the witnesses and incidents in its original letter charging Armstrong.

USADA had made it clear this was because of fear Armstrong would try to pressure and intimidate the witnesses before the hearing of the case against him.

In 2011 ESPN reported Armstrong had allegedly threatened his former teammate Tyler Hamilton for cooperating with a stalled criminal investigation.

Armstrong has something of a reputation in the media for strong-arm tactics, one of the most famous being his chasing down of the Italian rider, Filippo Simeoni during the 2004 Tour de France after Simeoni had testified in an Italian court case against Armstrong’s cycling doctor and associate Dr Ferrari.

It is also important to note that the same rules that apply to USADA in respect of due process, procedural fairness or natural justice apply to Cycling Australia and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA).

But never has Mueller or any other Cycling Australia official raised doubt about any perceived failures to afford natural justice in that process.

Passports

Mueller brought us back to the age-old mantra which, as already noted in passing, has its roots in the 1999 Tour of Redemption: that cycling has been “enormously proactive in fighting the curse of doping in the last seven years, if not longer”.

Mueller cited the example of the introduction of the Biological Passport, a system which analyses the longitudinal (over many years) blood profiles of cyclists in order to detect a probability of the likelihood of doping, as an example of this proactivity.

The Biological Passport was discussed at length in a report I co-authored on doping in Australian cycling and at the New Pathways for Pro Cycling Conference held in Geelong to coincide with the 2010 World Championships.

Prior to that conference I had already foreshadowed the problem of the “cancer” in cycling and Deakin University had offered itself as a space to pursue a way forward – an offer that Cycling Australia and the UCI refused to take up.

It’s maybe interesting to point out in passing that one of the passport’s main proponents and developers Michael Ashenden resigned from the UCI Biological Passport committee because of deficiencies in the process.

Credibility

Is it any wonder then the sceptics still have some trouble swallowing the words of those that administer the sport of cycling? In the end Mueller’s veiled defence of Armstrong raises the problem highlighted by David Howman in the conclusion of his letter to UCI President Pat McQuaid:

By adopting its current position UCI is sadly destroying the credibility it has slowly been regaining in the past years in the fight against doping.

Old networks and alliances don’t appear to die easily.


Further reading:
Lance Armstrong drops his doping fight with USADA – what now?