Will Amnesty Save Lance Armstrong?

Late Friday, word came down from UCI president Pat McQuaid that cycling’s governing body was contemplating offering immunity to riders who may have doped during the Lance Armstrong Era.

While the statement reported in both Cycling News and Velonews was vague, his message was clear; the UCI needs to find a way out of the controversy created by the US Anti Doping Agency’s sanctions against Armstrong.  It appears that USADA’s Travis Tygart rolled a snowball down a freshly-powdered mountain slope and that snowball is not only growing rapidly, it is likely to trigger an avalanche before it reaches the bottom of the hill.

For those who stopped following the story after Lance Armstrong issued his public statement to waive his right to arbitration, a new development has occurred that threatens to take down three of the possible ten witnesses against him.  Jonathan Vaughters, a former Armstrong teammate and current director of the Garmin-Sharp race team, inadvertently outed three of his own riders as past dopers in an online chat on Cycling News.  These three racers – Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriskie – have never tested positive for banned substances, been sanctioned for any doping violations, or admitted publicly to using illegal performance enhancers.  Vaughters’ public slip-up – whether accidental or calculated – has attracted the attention of the UCI.

USADA’s Travis Tygart now finds himself in quite a dilemma.

Tygart is in possession of confidential case files from the US Attorney’s investigation into the government-sponsored US Postal Team Armstrong raced for during most of his TdF victories.  Tygart used statements from deposed teammates to compel testimony against Armstrong.  Tygart reportedly offered each teammate immunity from sanctions for their own admitted violations in exchange for implicating Armstrong in a doping conspiracy.

None of the ten teammates rumored to have been offered Tygart’s deal ever had to testify publicly against Armstrong.  Until Vaughter’s public implication of Danielson, Vande Velde, and Zabriskie, the UCI had no cause to investigate any of the riders interviewed by the US Attorney’s office.  They do now.

Tygart and USADA have yet to submit the formal paperwork required by the UCI to strip Armstrong of his race results from 1998 to 2005.  Vaughter’s faux pas will embolden the UCI to demand that USADA turn over all evidence of doping by any American rider during this time period.  Long story short, Tygart will no longer be able to protect Lance’s reluctant accusers.

Every American rider who privately admitted to doping during the Lance Armstrong Era will become eligible for UCI sanctions.  This is particularly troublesome for those riders who continue to compete, especially Vande Velde, who just won the US Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado last month.

Cycling history will be rewritten.

USADA and the UCI will both be viewed as being ineffective, inept, and even complicit during the biggest doping period in all of sports.

The implications of such a move by the UCI are unfathomable.  Each race result for every sanctioned American rider will have to be changed.  Previously caught and sanctioned dopers from other nations will move up in the standings while every newly-sanctioned American rider is removed.  It will appear as if no American rider ever competed during this time period.

Except for that tiny detail that Americans actually did show up, competed aggressively, and influenced the outcome of every contest…

But what about the riders from other nations who competed during this era?

Do we trust that their own doping organizations weren’t as inept as USADA?  Or did those riders also cheat and get away with it at the time?

UCI will never be able to certify the altered race results from this time period.

There is no guarantee that had Lance tested positive before or during a competition that the 2nd place finisher would have dominated a competition in Lance’s absence.  Without the presence of US Postal and the Discovery Channel teams, every race would have been different.  Every rider who competed during that time knows how each race was contested.  Nullifying an individual’s results isn’t the same as getting in a time machine and starting a race over without certain riders at the line.

While amnesty may be the answer for avoiding a rewrite of racing history, it still may not be fair to everyone.

The riders who raced clean – whoever they may profess to be – were denied a level playing field by the UCI.  The system they trusted and pledged to abide by failed them.  It continues to fail them.   Asking each rider to accept an amnesty proposal – basically requiring an admission of doping or proof that they didn’t – in exchange for keeping the race results they earned, would be adding insult to injury.

Ditto for the domestic pro and top amateur riders who lost closely contested races to the men who landed a spot on Lance’s teams.  These clean riders made the most of their talent, training, and tenacity, yet still came up wanting against others with compromised ethics.  Careers were stalled or never started.  Dreams were dashed.  Integrity and sportsmanship didn’t prevail.  Honesty may have been the best policy, but it certainly wasn’t the path to glory.

An amnesty option won’t please everyone, but it will allow everyone involved to move forward.

Amnesty will require many admissions.  WADA, USADA, and all the other NADOs will have to admit that their testing methods during this period were ineffective at catching dopers.  UCI will have to admit that their results management policies are ill-suited for retroactively certifying race results.  All riders wishing to maintain their standings during this period will have to admit to any and all doping violations.

This last part may still prove to be the undoing of Lance Armstrong.

Lance has repeatedly denied ever using banned substances and has aggressively pursued retraction from any source that made any form of allegation to the contrary.  He continues to deny doping.  He refuses to participate in any forum where he’ll have to make sworn statements under oath and insists on challenging all accusers in open court.

Lance Armstrong has built one of the most well-known cancer fundraising organizations in the world, as well as his own brand name which is synonymous with American Exceptionalism.  He has amassed a personal fortune along the way.  He has told everyone who will listen that he has done this fair and square.  He is the real deal.  He won the Tour de France seven times without the help of banned substances.

If amnesty becomes an option, Lance will be asked to admit to doping in order to keep his cycling record intact.

Whether he is willing to do that is anybody’s guess…


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  • The only thing I can figure out from this is that unless there is some effort to clean it up, and not just amnesty on conditions, bicycling will never be taken again to be a legitimate sport. Heck, even the WWE pays lip service now and then to testing its "athletes."

    But since Lance waived arbitration, and you say he won't appear where he would be put under oath, we don't know that "He won the Tour de France seven times without the help of banned substances." After all, no one proved anything against Sammy Sosa, who said before a Congressional committee "mi no comprende Ingles."

  • In reply to jack:


    Cycling has come a long way since the Armstrong Era and is probably the most transparent about its drug testing / results management process. Frank Schleck was just popped at this year's TdF and Contador was forced to serve a retroactive suspension where he lost both his TdF and Giro wins. Arguably, bike racing does more publicly than any other sport to ensure the viewing public that it's trying to run a fair competition.

    Just like with Wall Street, the cheaters will always be one step ahead of the regulators. The bigger question is why would a racer risk getting caught doping to win a bike race?

    Steve Tilford's blog had an interesting commentary today entitled "The Juice is Worth the Squeeze" (http://www.stevetilford.com/?p=21612). His analogy says it all - the reward is far greater than the risk.

    I plan on writing a follow-up as to what bike racing can do in the future to remove the incentive to cheat. It's not just about more stringent testing - I'm sure Sammy Sosa never had a rep from MLB show up at his home in the Dominican Republic in the dead of winter asking him to pee in a cup - it's about the precarious financial model employed in the sport that promotes "win at any cost / winner takes all".

    And to clarify one other point, SO FAR, Lance has refused to make a statement under oath anywhere but in a US court (knowing full well that he can invoke his 5th Amendment right). This could change if the UCI moves to strip him of his titles should amnesty be offered and declined.

    It will be interesting to watch this continue to unfold...

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