He ranked among the most ferociously competitive athletes of the last two decades, but in the end, Lance Armstrong lost his appetite for battle. And so we are to be deprived of a dramatic courtroom denouement from him, such as the one delivered by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.
Safer to do it this way. For it's not clear that, adoring as they are, Armstrong's yellow-braceleted legions of supporters could have handled the truth—in the form of sworn testimony from the 10 or so ex-teammates prepared to talk in detail about the blood bags, syringes and testosterone patches. Rather than take his chances in an arbitration hearing with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which had accused him of cheating his way to his seven consecutive Tour de France titles, beginning in 1999, the man who fought cancer and won looked at the charges arrayed against him and said uncle.
That's not how Armstrong and his retinue of lawyers and spin doctors want you to see it. They much prefer that you think of him as a persecuted victim taking a lonely, courageous stand against The Man. He's innocent, you see, but he's also very tired of this long, pitched battle with an oppressive, obsessive agency engaged in what he termed "an unconstitutional witch hunt."
The end of this hunt marks, one hopes, the end of a misbegotten era. Athletes will still cheat. (See: Cabrera, Melky.) Following the trials of Bonds and Clemens, L'Affaire Armstrong looks like the last instance of the feds spending seven-figure sums to snare the marquee performers.
Of course Armstrong is exhausted: He's been fending off skeptics for as long as he'd been winning Tours. Irish journalist David Walsh found his sustained accelerations in the mountains in 1999 so spectacular as to be implausible, and wasn't afraid to say so. Greg Lemond cast doubt on the legitimacy of Armstrong's victories as early as 2001 upon learning that the Texan had been working with Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor with a relaxed attitude toward EPO. Such was the power of Armstrong's narrative, the greatest sports comeback story ever, that Lemond and Walsh and Betsy Andreu, the wife of an ex--Armstrong teammate who became one of his fiercest critics—were for years just voices in the wilderness.
Floyd Landis turned the tide. In a Wall Street Journal bombshell that ran under the headline BLOOD BROTHERS in July 2010, the 2006 Tour champion, who had been stripped of his title after tests showed elevated testosterone levels, spoke candidly of his use of performance-enhancing drugs while he was a U.S. Postal Service teammate of Armstrong's. Although others had said as much off the record, Landis was the first of Armstrong's teammates to break the squad's omerta and publicly accuse the Texan.
A Landis quote from the WSJ story stayed with me. Even after his damning revelations, Landis couldn't help giving Armstrong props: "He's a fighter. He's a bad-ass bicycle racer.... I don't in any way wish to take away from that."
Anyone who saw Armstrong gut his way through the 2003 Tour, his narrowest victory in that race; anyone who remembers how he crashed that year on the climb of Luz Ardiden, then remounted, overtook the lead group then rode through it; anyone who has taken a call from a miffed Armstrong after composing a story he didn't care for—all would agree with Landis:
He's a fighter.
Make that was a fighter.
With USADA coming after him with "overwhelming" evidence of his past doping, Armstrong suddenly wanted to spend more time with his family. Faced with a potential parade of ex-teammates spilling accounts of injections and transfusions in hotel rooms and on team buses, he concluded that getting on with his life was more important than defending one of the most commanding legacies in sport.
Do you think Armstrong would have rolled over if he had won all those Tours clean? Do you think he would plead guilty to a crime he hadn't committed, rather than fighting those charges to the death? Armstrong and his lawyers were instead reduced to claiming that USADA has no jurisdiction in this matter. Yet, in fact, it does, under the World Anti-Doping Agency Code, adopted by the International Cycling Union in 2004. That code gives USADA the authority to investigate and sanction athletes independent of national or international governing bodies.
Armstrong also complained that USADA's arbitration process amounted to a kangaroo court that would deny him due process. (You can't blame him for not liking his chances: Since its inception 12 years ago, USADA is 58--2 in arbitration cases.) But in throwing out Armstrong's lawsuit against that agency on Aug. 20, District Judge Sam Sparks found that Armstrong was required to honor the USA Cycling licenses he'd signed every year, in which he agreed to settle allegations of doping in arbitration.
It's instructive to remember, as Armstrong brandishes his unofficial title as the World's Most Tested Athlete and cites the hundreds of tests he passed, that he didn't actually pass them all. At the Tour in 1999 he went positive for a banned corticosteroid. He got out of that pickle by producing a "retrospective" Therapeutic Use Exemption—a backdated doctor's note.
Armstrong's lawyers need not be glum. It's not as if, having folded against USADA, he'll no longer have need of their services. As the New York Daily News points out, that surrender opens the Texan to "massive legal liability" from a long list of claimants "who gave him their money while he represented himself to be as pure as Caesar's wife."
While Armstrong's legal issues aren't over, his defeat at the hands of USADA hopefully brings down the curtain on a particularly sordid era in cycling. Indeed, if he did dope to win all those Tours, it's not clear how much of an advantage that gave him over his main rivals: Such was the PED-drenched culture of the sport during his reign.
Most of USADA's charges against Armstrong predate 2008, the year the UCI introduced the so-called biological passport, which establishes individual baselines to test against. Invasive and inconvenient for the riders though it is, the passport has significantly cleaned up the sport. Riders almost certainly still cheat, but it's much more risky, and they must do it in a much narrower window. Last month's Tour de France victory by Great Britain's Bradley Wiggins, long an outspoken critic of dopers in his sport, very much had the feel of a triumph for clean cycling, as well.
Congrats to Wiggo, by the way, for his podium finish at the 2009 Tour. He'd originally finished fourth but was upgraded last Friday, when Armstrong's third-place finish was erased. The following year, on the eighth stage of his 13th and final Tour, on the mountainous road to Morzine, Armstrong got hung up in three crashes, hit the deck once, lost touch with the leaders, and just like that, his Tour was over. I recall how shocking and out of character it was to see him not struggling valiantly out of the saddle on the final climb, as he had done on Luz Ardiden in '03, but seated, riding tempo, resigned to his fate.
The man knew when he was beaten.
HE'S BEEN FENDING OFF SKEPTICS FOR AS LONG AS HE'S BEEN WINNING.
SI asked its Facebook and Google+ users over the weekend for their opinions regarding Lance Armstrong. More than 1,000 replied.
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