Lance Armstrong and Travis Tygart: Capone and Ness redux

It's hard to believe that the two most pressing issues 60 Minutes could delve into last night involved speculation that Hillary Clinton would run for president in 2016 and a rebuttal to the Oprah Winfrey interview with Lance Armstrong...

In case you missed the second segment, Travis Tygart of the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) was interviewed by Scott Pelley regarding the Lance Armstrong doping case.  Tygart appeared on the news program to set the record straight about Armstrong in the all-important court of public opinion.

60 Minutes must have felt that the average American needed an authority to disprove Armstrong's claims that he never tested positive in 2001, didn't receive instructions on how to beat continual drug tests from one of the testing labs, hadn't bribed the UCI, raced without the aid of PEDs during his comeback in 2009 and 2010, and never offered a bribe to USADA through one of his associates.  Who better than the man who spearheaded the Armstrong investigation in the first place?

Cycling fans already know the whole story.

USADA, since its inception in 2000, never caught Lance Armstrong and his fellow teammates using a doping control.  There was not a single test administered by the agency that any of these racers failed.  Ever.  When the US Attorney General's office dropped off sealed Federal grand jury testimony, Tygart had all the evidence he needed to sanction each and every rider under USADA's jurisdiction.  The USAG had succeeded where USADA had continually failed.

As CEO of USADA - an organization that receives 9 million dollars of its +/- 12 million dollar annual budget from US taxpayers - Tygart had two choices; investigate why his agency couldn't catch cycling drug cheats with doping controls or pursue a case against the US Postal team, even though the admitted doping occurred outside the agency's own statute of limitations for issuing sanctions.  Let's forget for a moment that only 12% of the athletes USADA tests each year are cyclists.  Let's also forget that historically, all doping controls administered by USADA result in a failed test less than 1/2 of 1% of the time (.37%).*

When your agency receives taxpayer funding of $1,100 per athlete to perform drug testing and it takes nearly $300,000 before a single athlete is caught and sanctioned, you might want to ask yourself if your agency is doing everything it can to carry out its mandate.  Pelley even questioned Tygart about the gamble the agency took in pursuing Armstrong.  Tygart replied that if people didn't like the results - the truth, essentially - they should just shut the agency down.

For a moment there, I thought I was watching Lance himself.

It was the classic "how dare you question my integrity" response.  Clearly, the end has justified the means.  Lance Armstrong has been exposed and given the harshest sanction allowed.  Armstrong's co-conspirators have been punished.  A message has been sent to anyone who dares to cheat in the future.  No athlete is too big to fail.  You might be able to beat USADA in a doping control, but eventually, the agency will catch you.

Stepping back and looking at the battle between Tygart and Armstrong, I can't help but think about a Kevin Costner movie I saw while flipping through cable channels recently.  No, it wasn't the completely unbelievable story of a once-competitive cyclist teaching his never-raced-before-in-his-life younger brother how to beat international champions during a van ride from Wisconsin to Colorado.  It was The Untouchables.

If you recall, Elliot Ness was an agent with a very unpopular and disrespected federal agency tasked with catching bootleggers during Prohibition.  Al Capone was the biggest bootlegger of them all, murdering rivals, bribing local officials, law enforcement, judges, and potential jurors - all the while making tons of money.  Capone was living the high life, everyone knew he was dirty, yet no one could ever bring him down.

Ness could never catch Capone in the act and it took coercion of his accountant to bring charges against him for tax evasion - not bootlegging, extortion, or murder.  According to the movie, anyway, Ness bluffed the judge into rendering a conviction by implying that there was evidence that the judge might be on the take from Capone.

Substitute Tygart for Ness and Armstrong for Capone and it's remarkably close to being the same story.

When I see Tygart, I see a man who believes he is Elliot Ness.  He is self-righteous and clearly has something to prove.  Despite his agency's ineptitude, its lack of respect, the odds stacked against it by more clever adversaries, and its questionable value in the public eye - what the agency does matters.  You can't put a value on the truth.  Delivering justice is the only criteria USADA should be judged by.

If only Armstrong were Al Capone...

There is little doubt that Tygart's 1000-page Reasoned Decision details a very sophisticated attempt to conceal unlawful, unethical, and unsportsmanlike activities that violated cycling's rules and tarnished its reputation.  Armstrong may have been the best at cheating, but he didn't do it alone.  He wasn't the only one to profit from his crimes.  He wasn't the root of all evil in professional cycling.  He wasn't even at the top of the organizational chart.  Armstrong may have symbolized Capone in America, but professional cycling is a European sport.  He was but a member of the family, not the Godfather.

While Tygart got his man, there is nothing left for him to do in this case.  Only WADA and UCI can decide if Armstrong's ban should be revisited.  Only UCI can clean up cycling.  WADA can help.  Change Cycling Now can help.  The independent review commission can help.  USADA can help, but the agency lacks any authority to influence this matter further.

Should the UCI go through with a truth and reconciliation panel, Armstrong will have his opportunity to testify to everything he knows about doping and the conspiracy surrounding its cover-up.  The ball is no longer in Tygart's court and he seems to be having a hard time relinquishing the spotlight.

USADA has a responsibility to every pan-American and Olympic athlete to implement drug testing that ensures that all athletes are competing cleanly in the present - not in the past.  Every resource the taxpayers provide should be used for improving the entire testing process.  A .37%  detection rate is unacceptable to the athletes and the taxpayers.  This is where Tygart needs to direct his focus.

Tygart was correct in saying that he wants to send a message to all athletes that no athlete is ever too big to fail.  But his execution of the Armstrong case only demonstrates that ratting out another, bigger cheat is still the best way to avoid a stiff sanction.  Cross that bridge when you get there - the more tests you beat now, the less likely you'll get caught later.

Tygart needs to put our money where his mouth is and start improving his agency's results.  Athletes should fear failing drug tests that end their careers instantly - not dying of syphilis after years of enjoying their ill-gotten gains...

Full Lance Armstrong Series:  Public Perception and the Cost of Keeping Cycling CleanLance Armstrong Seeks Day in Actual Court,  Lance Armstrong Seeks GOP Congressman's Assistance,  Defending Cycling: Lance Armstrong Edition,  Lance Armstrong Will Not Fight Sanctions,  Will Amnesty Save Lance Armstrong,  Entire Era of US Cycling Erased from History,  Time for Lance Armstrong to Come Clean,  Lance Armstrong, Mitt Romney, and the Piftalls of Trusting a Winner,  Lance Armstrong Goes Down, Greg LeMond Steps Up,  Greg LeMond Wants to Take Over International Cycling,  Last Chance for Lance Armstrong,  Will It Really Matter If Lance Armstrong ConfessesLance Armstrong to Confess All to OprahLance Armstrong's path to redemption starts with OprahIt's not about the bike - it's only about Lance ArmstrongLance and Oprah part one; candid but not truthful, Lance and Oprah, what's next for Armstrong

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* USADA Rule violation statistics.


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