In the Tour de France, a race he won seven times, Lance Armstrong was so driven that he would chase down cyclists who offended his sense of fair play. By the same token, he once slowed to let a rival win a Tour stage to honor his opponent’s competitiveness. So his decision to forfeit his titles and not contest charges by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that he used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and led a doping ring throughout his career is both surprising and, in a sense, logical.
Armstrong is a ferociously competitive beast, but faced with a process he saw as blatantly unfair and stacked against him, he refused to take part in an arbitration with USADA over the charges. For example, USADA, the agency that handles drug testing and enforcement for Olympic-level and other elite athletes who compete in global events like the Tour, refused to provide the names of the dozen witnesses slated to testify against him, as is required in U.S. courts. “From the beginning, we have challenged USADA’s motives, methods and authority to proceed with a so-called conspiracy charge against Mr. Armstrong,” his attorneys said in a statement.
USADA has long insisted, over the course of increasingly vituperative exchanges between the two parties, that Armstrong is refusing to take part in an arbitration procedure that he had a part in creating and that he, as an international cyclist, had agreed to follow. “As is every athlete’s right,” USADA said in a statement, “if Mr. Armstrong would have contested the USADA charges, all of the evidence would have been presented in an open legal proceeding for him to challenge. He chose not to do this, knowing these sanctions would immediately be put into place.” Armstrong says jurisdiction of his case belongs to the Union Cycliste Internationale, not to USADA.
With Armstrong’s decision not to arbitrate, his victories have vanished, although not necessarily his legacy as the founder of LiveStrong, the cancer advocacy group that is nearly 15 years old. Certainly, his legend as a cyclist, once tainted, is forever scarred. It was a great one too. Surviving a cancer that had spread from his testicle to his lungs and brain, Armstrong returned to cycling and dominated the Tour for six years, first as the leader of the U.S. Postal team and later for teams at Discovery Channel, Astana and Radio Shack. He raised cycling’s profile in the States and magnified the Tour’s significance. But according to USADA, Armstrong was also the leader of a doping conspiracy that since 1999 obtained and shared PEDs such as erythropoietin (EPO) and human growth hormone (HGH).
Armstrong resolutely defended himself, reminding his critics that he never failed a drug test during his career — 560 in total, according to the Wall Street Journal. That allegation-refutation refrain was constant, a part of every story ever written about him. So Armstrong decided he was finished defending himself. “Today I turn the page,” he said in a statement. “I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances. I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities.” (Disclosure: I have donated to LiveStrong.)
More than that, he bitterly resents being singled out by USADA and its leader, Travis Tygart, for what he labeled “an unconstitutional witch hunt” — a pursuit that has cost Armstrong millions in legal fees. He was also targeted by federal investigators who spent three years and millions of taxpayer dollars pursuing charges that Armstrong somehow defrauded the government by winning the Tour de France as the leader of the Posties while using PEDs.
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The feds dropped the case without charges being filed. The decision came in the context of baseball star Barry Bonds’ steroid case — largely an embarrassing government defeat — and juries’ general lack of concern, from a legal standpoint, about athletes’ alleged use of PEDs. The potential witnesses in the USPS case included Floyd Landis, another Tour winner busted for doping and former Armstrong teammate who claimed that both of them had used PEDs. Landis, though, had some credibility issues that might have been robustly challenged in a federal court. So while that case was dropped, the U.S. Attorney shared with Tygart and USADA some of the information it had obtained. Tygart’s witnesses purportedly included trusted Armstrong lieutenants like veteran cyclist George Hincapie, but USADA refused to release names, on the basis that Armstrong could intimidate them if it did so. Armstrong’s defense team hinted that USADA’s witnesses had been offered leniency for their own violations if they testified against him.
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Armstrong’s attorneys tried desperately to head off the USADA case by filing suit in federal court in Texas, alleging that USADA’s adjudication system didn’t afford due process. But U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks threw the case out twice. The first time, he scolded the Armstrong team for trying to use U.S. courts to vent its criticism of the USADA investigation. But he threw out the revised suit with some reluctance and was critical of USADA’s behavior. Some of USADA’s procedures, such as its charging letter, wouldn’t pass muster in federal court, he said, but the federal court had no business in the court of sport. In one note, cited by Armstrong’s attorneys, Sparks said, “Among the Court’s concerns is the fact that USADA has targeted Armstrong for prosecution many years after his alleged doping violations occurred.” He pointed out that USADA also charged people along with Armstrong, such as team doctors and managers, over whom it had no jurisdiction.
When the federal court threw out his suit, Armstrong figured he had no chance in USADA’s court. The agency that had been after him for more than 10 years now stood, in his view, as judge, jury and executioner. So Armstrong, for perhaps the first and only time in his career, decided not to compete. In his view, he’s already ahead 560 to 0. Instead, he will take his case to the court of public opinion. And there we can all judge him.