In June, when the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)’s allegations against cyclist Lance Armstrong were released, I wrote:
Armstrong has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, describing USADA’s actions as a “witch hunt” and arguing that in 25 years as a professional athlete he has “passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one”.
But the recent accusations suggest Armstrong was nothing less than a willing participant and active leader in a culture of doping (including himself and other cyclists) for more than a decade.
Ouch indeed. Yesterday USADA released its reasoned decision in the arbitration against Armstrong and it makes for extraordinary reading. The level of detail, even in the 200-page summary of the entirety of the evidence, is extraordinary.
There are multiple overlapping testimonies from 11 of Armstrong’s former teammates (and 26 witnesses overall), corroborating evidence, details of financial transactions, information about further drug tests, and more. The full USADA report, when you include all the appendices, extends over more than 1,000 pages.
People have been convicted of capital crimes on the basis of much, much less. From a scientific perspective, the testimony provides a window into doping at the highest levels of cycling.
Several facts stand out which make a great deal of sense.
From the late 1990s onwards, the drug of choice was EPO (Erythropoietin ) – a method to increase the ability of the blood to carry oxygen by increasing the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. But when an EPO detection test was rumoured to be introduced in the year 2000, the athletes immediately switched to blood doping. The differences between these two practices are outlined in my previous article.
EPO was still used infrequently after testing was introduced, and a far more prosaic solution to avoid drug testing - such as relying on the drug to clear the rider’s system overnight, or simply hiding from the drug testers - was employed.
Simple saline injections were often used to dilute the haematocrit (a measure of the percentage of red blood cells to the total blood volume) in order to return blood parameters temporarily to normal.
Blood parameter monitoring in the team was as sophisticated as their training doctor carrying a Hemocue (a portable blood-testing instrument) and a centrifuge to make sure their “numbers” were in the correct zones for optimal performance.
Low-dose testosterone, in the form of the oral testosterone ester Andriol or testosterone patches (normally prescribed for male hormone replacement) were also frequently employed for recovery. Like EPO, these were used overnight in conjunction with careful blood monitoring.
Armstrong’s proud statement of having passed “500 doping controls” or similar is a misnomer. Most of these tests were designed to establish biological passport values, and were not actually drug tests.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, the testimonies in their entirety paint Armstrong as the spiritual leader of these proceedings. This was over a decade or so in which there were frequent accusations and smaller scandals about doping, all of which were met with outright denial and often overt hostility.
From the broadest perspective, there can be little doubt any more about whether Lance Armstrong was doping throughout his professional cycling career.
Armstrong has consistently maintained that USADA has been leading a “witch hunt” against him. If that is the case, it seems overwhelmingly likely that’s because he is, in fact, a witch.