ATHLETIC VOICE: Armstrong case still unclear


Lance Armstrong never got caught with a smoking gun. The United States Anti-Doping Agency still decided there was enough smoke to presume a fire, though.

By banning the seven-time Tour de France champion from competition and coaching for life, USADA seemingly torched Armstrong’s reputation and legacy.

But Armstrong’s case is far from open and shut.

The case against him constitutes more a preponderance of the evidence than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

It’s not like we haven’t seen this movie before in American sports, including very recently. We’ve grown accustomed to our once-unimpeachable heroes falling from grace.

Very few reasonable people outside of Pennsylvania believe Joe Paterno didn’t help conspire to harbor a serial pedophile in his midst. Everyone basically accepts that Tiger Woods is not the wonderful family man he presented himself to be.

And you’d probably be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think O.J. Simpson saw dead people long before the kid in “The Sixth Sense.”

What we haven’t dealt with is the doubt and complexity that accompany Armstrong’s case.

One of the most damning pieces of circumstantial evidence against him is his domination of a sport which has been rife with dopers for years. Many say the man who so consistently outpaced those tainted fields must also have been dirty.

Add to that the 10 former Armstrong teammates USADA says it has ready to testify against him. Included among them are admitted dopers Tyler Hamilton and 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his title after being caught cheating.

Former personal and team assistants have also accused him of having steroids in an apartment in Spain and disposing of syringes they say were used for injections.

All that’d be needed to deal the coup de grace to Armstrong would be something concrete. This is where the impartial hand of science could step in and tip the scales of justice irrefutably toward the side of guilt.

For certainty’s sake, that’d be very helpful. Then we’d know for sure that an innocent man’s life wasn’t being irrevocably tarnished.

But that’s where this story veers off course. The inconvenient truth is that Armstrong has never failed a drug test. And it’s not because various agencies haven’t tried to catch him riding dirty.

Armstrong’s probably had more blood drawn than a broke college sophomore who spent his summer savings by November.

Armstrong denounced the case against him, calling it flimsy and lacking in evidence.

“Regardless of what (USADA chief executive) Travis Tygart says, there is zero physical evidence to support his outlandish and heinous claims,” Armstrong said. “The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls I have passed with flying colors.”

The “CSI” moment is yet to arrive in this case. There’s a lot of smoke, but where’s the fire?



One thought on “ATHLETIC VOICE: Armstrong case still unclear”

  1. As you probably know, there was no “smoking gun” with Marion Jones, she never tested positive, and yet she used and was convicted with other types of evidence — eyewitness, doping logs, etc. Also recognize there was no “smoking gun” with Bjarn Riis (1996 TdF champion) or Jonathan Vaughters, both high level TdF cyclists who never tested positive, yet admitted after they retired from cycling that they doped the majority of their career.

    Here are answers to some of the commonly asked questions surrounding doping in sports, and about doping in the Lance Armstrong case:

    QUESTION 1: “If all these guys were on the same juice, why was only Lance winning?”
    ANSWERThere are many aspects to this question. First, the entire field of pro cyclists were likely not doping, but most of the top riders were. Many riders who refused to dope over the years were forced out of the sport (i.e., Andy Bishop, Christophe Bassons) when they couldn’t keep up with the pace of the doped cyclists and when they were ostracized, spat on, threatened, etc. by the doped riders. Second, each rider responds differently to PEDs due to differences in physiology. Some riders gain greater advantages than other riders using the same substance, and that results in fans and cyclists not knowing who was the best true rider, only who was the best doped rider. Lance might have been the best rider and might have won many TdF titles even if clean, but we’ll never know. Third, Lance had a quite unremarkable pro cycling career prior to cancer. He had competed in the TdF three times, he dropped out the first two and finished 36th in his third one. He had some success on one day races, but no notable success in the Grand Tours to indicate he would become a great champion. It’s widely suspected in the cycling community that post-cancer, his sophisticated doping regimen of EPO, HgH, and Testosterone vaulted him from being an OK rider to being an exceptional rider. We’ll never really know how he would have fared against the field if everyone had been clean. With the introduction of EPO into pro cycling in the early ’90s, the same can be said of all TdF champions from ~1991-2005 (and maybe beyond).

    QUESTION 2: “A drug can do a lot, but how much?”
    ANSWER: Prior to 1990s, cyclists doped with things like caffeine and amphetamines. These things didn’t really enhance performance over a three week race, just gave the riders a little pick-me-up to feel better. A clean rider who chose not to dope with these substances could still win. But with the introduction of EPO, HemAssist, and other blood vector agents, the game changed. A clean rider had no shot at winning. Now average riders who took EPO could easily surpass great riders who didn’t because the EPO boosted performance on the order of 20%. Remember, riders participating in the TdF are all very good, and a 20% boost in performance could take a rider who might finished 20th to the podium.

    QUESTION 3: “Why do people say cheaters are always ahead of testers?”
    ANSWER: Cheaters are always one step ahead because, at least in the past, the development of tests for drugs only happens when there’s evidence that they’re being used by cheaters. When a new medical drug comes into production and is released for use in medicine there is no test for it. Cheats are fairly quick to work out that e.g. a drug that boosts red blood cell production for people that are anaemic could give them a bit of help getting oxygen to their muscles when they’re training or competing, so they start using it. Then the anti-doping authorities have to invest time and money in developing a test for it, and the test has to be thoroughly researched to ensure it won’t give false positives, because otherwise they will go on to spend all their money on lawyers defending their sanctions.

    On top of that, add a couple more factors.

    Firstly some of the drugs being used are identical or close to identical to substances produced naturally by the body. In this case they have to establish a threshold for the drug in an athlete’s bloodstream/urine. They have to research exactly how much is natural, and therefore allowable, and make sure this can hold for all athletes, regardless of the individual athlete’s physiology and circumstance. Again, they don’t want all their rulings challenged in court, so they need to err on the side of caution. That means athletes can get away with more of the drug in their blood than is natural because it’s possible that a couple of athletes out there have naturally high levels.

    Secondly, some athletes have used deliberately modified drugs, e.g. the so called “designer steroids” used by Chambers (BALCO affair). These have been deliberately altered in a small way so that they don’t show up in the tests (the molecular weight doesn’t match what the testers are looking for) but still produce the same effect. Chambers was only caught because someone supplied the anti-doping authorities with a syringe of the new drug (THG) so they knew to look for it.

    Drug tests are specific. They look for specific substances. There are a lot of substances to look for, some we don’t even know to look for, and some that might be natural occurring but in too high levels. An individual blood test cannot be used to check for everything. For a start, there’s not enough blood to check each possible drug, and secondly it costs a fortune to run some of the tests.

    The dopers know this. They also know how long it takes for a drug to be completely out of their system, or to have fallen to an allowable level – sometimes it’s as little as 12 hours, yet the benefits can be there for months or even years. They know which other drugs and methods will mask the presence of the drug in their body, so even if it should show up it won’t.

    Then there are blood transfusions, where if you take a litre of your own blood out when you don’t need it and add it back when you do (e.g. just before a key mountain stage in the Tour de France) it’s very difficult to detect. There is no direct test for it. You can’t test an athletes blood for the presence of his own blood.

    So far so bad.

    The good news is that the anti-doping agencies have developed a new strategy, which involves looking not for the drug itself, but for it’s effects on the body. This is known as the biological passport – a series of measurements designed to show up any unnatural variations in the athlete’s blood or urine values. For example, if the drug cause the body to create a lot of new red blood cells then look for lots of new red blood cells. This, of course, requires heavy statistical analysis of an athlete’s normal levels of red bloodcell production, sophisticated measurements and expert analysis of the results – again, because the drug-cheats first response to a violation is to call his lawyers and cost you money in court. And again, the cheats are ahead. The undetectable blood transfusion comes back into fashion, except that it turns out that it isn’t undetectable after all. The blood cells it puts back into the body are old. The balance of old and new red blood cells is wrong.

    Ah good, now we can start catching some cheats then?

    No, not so fast.

    EPO, which boosts red blood cell production and causes young blood cells to show up in an athlete’s blood values shows up with the opposite readings to a blood transfusion. So what if you do a blood transfusion and EPO at the same time, at the right levels to ensure your balance looks normal?

    That’s right, you’re invisible again. This is known as EPO microdosing, and it’s what athletes are doing, and it’s what Armstrong is alleged to have done. The EPO is undetectable in the bloodstream after very little time. The blood values are in balance, but the athlete has more blood and a huge competitive advantage. As long as the athlete manages to stay inside the levels allowed by the testers to account for natural variation he’s safe.

    Apologies that the explanation is long, but the drug cheats are incredibly sophisticated, hire very expensive doctors to work this all out (and measure their values to make sure they don’t go outside the natural limits) and hire very expensive lawyers to challenge any adverse result they might get.

    This is why the phrase “failing a drugs test is failing an IQ test” has been used. If you’re smart and organised and have the resources then drugs tests are other, stupid, athletes’ problems.

    And this is why eyewitness testimony becomes important. You can stay ahead of the testers, but you have to make sure no-one talks afterwards

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