The people vs Lance Armstrong

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

Disgraced former cycling champion Lance Armstrong’s problems have just multiplied exponentially. The United States government notified a federal court that it was joining a two-year old lawsuit filed by self-confessed cheater and Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis. The American government contends that when Armstrong signed with sponsor US Postal Service a decade ago, he misrepresented himself as not doing drugs. US Postal Service claims he violated their rules against use of prohibited substances.

Landis, for his part, has made some stinging accusations against the former seven-time Tour de France winner. First, that he personally saw Armstrong extract and re-inject himself with his own blood to improve his performance before a competition. Second, Landis claims that Armstrong gave him performance-enhancing drugs when they were riding together.

Blood doping is a long-standing and forbidden practice among elite athletes. Basically, an athlete extracts some of his own blood a certain period before a major competition. His body then naturally manufactures more blood to replace what has been lost. At the onset of a competition, the culprit will then reintroduce the blood into his bloodstream, giving him a small but significant edge in terms of endurance and increased performance. It is even more effective if the said athlete had been training in high, oxygen-rich altitude immediately before the competition, as the effects last for days after descent.

Armstrong was paid $30 million for the sponsorship. His legal representation makes two counter claims. They say the agreement with US Postal Service never specifically forbade blood doping, which they claim is not the same as substance abuse. In addition, they say the US Postal Service benefitted to the tune of an additional $100 million in revenue thanks to Armstrong’s endorsement.

After making a vague confession in an interview with Oprah Winfrey last month, Armstrong has since refused to cooperate with the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). His lawyers are practically calling the investigation a witch-hunt, saying they just want to selectively “demonize” people like Armstrong. 

“Over the last few weeks, he has led us to believe that he wanted to come in and assist USADA, but was worried of potential criminal and civil liability if he did so. Today we learned from the media that Mr. Armstrong is choosing not to come in and be truthful and that he will not take the opportunity to work toward righting his wrongs in sport,” the USADA said in a statement.

The problem with the Armstrong case is that it was not a one-time offense. Cycling events last days, even weeks, so the cyclist has to continually boost his performance. The best cyclists are invited to several competitions a year, so they have to stay at the top of their game for extended periods. Unlike in other sports where doping has been an international issue like bodybuilding where an athlete can only conceivably be at his peak three or four times a year, cycling requires more continuous top-level performance.

Armstrong now faces a larger uphill battle. Unlike being sued by an individual or even an organization with limited resources, his case will now read “The People of the United States versus Lance Armstrong” and that is very bad news. The federal government and Justice Department have very deep pockets, almost unlimited access to information and surveillance equipment, not to mention untold influence.  If you recall, the mere accusation of communism and other personal attacks kept respected actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin out of the US for decades. 

This writer agrees that Armstrong is trying to do things on his terms. He denies guilt emphatically, then admits it on television. He says he will cooperate fully, then refuses to assist investigations. He says he deserves to pay the price for his actions, but sits back when the punishment is being determined. He may have a point that the past positive impact of his endorsements financially outweighs the current negative effects. After all, the companies he endorsed have all earned back the money they paid him and then some. But nobody likes being embarrassed, so they’re going after him primarily for their allegedly tainted reputations.

Armstrong is getting bad advice. If he endures the heat of an investigation by being open and cooperative, the discomfort will gradually lessen as he helps investigators. But if he continues to hold out, it will just calcify his image as an unrepentant, world-class cheater who did irreparable damage to his sport, damage that will be a blot throughout the future of cycling.

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