- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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The word "alleged" should now be dropped from any description of the way doping permeated and enabled Lance Armstrong's cycling career.
For most of the past 15 years, no discussion or story about Armstrong was complete without that loaded yet qualified term. Doping allegations dogged him, came to naught, were declared specious and dismissed by him. Yet they continued to multiply, rattling behind him like tin cans tied to the bumper of a luxury car.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's release of its "reasoned decision" and staggeringly voluminous supporting documents that resulted in its move to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him from elite competition for life -- charges he opted not to contest -- changes all that, and rewrites Armstrong's sporting epitaph from alleged to proven user of performance-enhancing drugs and techniques.
There is no other logical conclusion. After today, anyone who remains unconvinced simply doesn't want to know.
At the core of USADA's case are the collective sworn confessions of a generation of American riders who lived and trained and raced with Armstrong. Taken together, they constitute overwhelming evidence that can't be painted as disgruntled fragging by ex-"lieutenants.'' Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis lied about their own doping and tacitly covered for their former teammates for years, which made it difficult for some to believe them when they finally told the truth. Now they no longer stand isolated.
USADA also presented scientific evidence, in the form of new analyses of old test data, that leads to the conclusion that Armstrong was doping more than a decade ago and continued to dope during his two-season comeback in 2009-10. Had this case gone to arbitration, experts from both sides would have given contradictory accounts of what the numbers mean. Armstrong could have raised questions about USADA's interpretation, or charged that the samples could have been tampered with, as he has before. Instead, with his entire legacy at stake, he elected to walk away.
You can choose not to believe any or all of the witnesses. You can choose to disregard the flashing neon arrows among the test results. You can somehow construe the $1 million in payments Armstrong made to the Swiss-based company of discredited trainer Michele Ferrari as legitimate medical expenses, or remarkably generous gifts. To discount all three elements of USADA's case, and the way they overlap and intersect, is nothing less than being willfully blind.
The riders who signed sworn affidavits also either testified before a federal grand jury or were questioned by federal investigators, risking perjury if they lied or changed their stories. And by admitting to old transgressions for which they were never caught, several riders -- notably, the recently retired George Hincapie -- have hung their own reputations out to dry. It defies credulity to say that all of these statements were given out of spite or in bad faith or to reduce the witnesses' own doping penalties.
The USADA file is greater than the sum of its parts. It shows how sweeping organized doping can be and how many people will collaborate to keep deception afloat when a star's rising tide is lifting them all. Dozens and dozens of people knew: Teammates. Massage therapists. The bus driver. The gardener. Doctors, girlfriends, managers, personal assistants, wives. Everyone cheated. Everyone was in on it. Everyone rationalized that it was part of the cost of doing business.
Doping was endemic during the era when Armstrong dominated the biggest bike race in the world. Every
participant in the sport-wide Ponzi scheme of that time was to some extent the product of a warped environment, including the champion. What sets Armstrong apart is that his competitive success, fueled by illicit means and synergized with his comeback from cancer, made it possible for him to transcend cycling and reap greater profits than anyone else.
For years, Armstrong's critics depended on deductive reasoning and anonymous sources to peg him as a cheater.
As Armstrong's contemporaries confessed to doping or were convicted one by one, populating the Tour de France standings below him with cardboard cutouts, it became increasingly difficult to accept that he could have won those races clean -- usually by substantial margins -- over a dirty cohort.
The USADA file confirms those suspicions, and there are names attached.
Eleven former teammates' affidavits spell out the same story: a repetitive, mind-numbing, depressing recitation, even for those of us who ditched the rose-tinted lenses long ago. It's also incredibly important to digest this material, for fans of this or any sport -- that is, if you're interested in nonfiction as opposed to gauzy mythology, and if you're curious about the price elite athletes will pay to deliver crowd-pleasing spectacle.
The file strings together the historical bullet points long worn like beaded bracelets by Armstrong's disbelievers. All the familiar, damning anecdotes are here, recounted over and over by multiple witnesses who were neck-deep in the culture.
Here is corroboration for the testosterone-laced olive oil and pills and patches and the backdated prescription for cortisone cream produced by the U.S. Postal Service team after a test revealed its presence during Armstrong's first winning Tour. Here are multiple riders describing the use of Actovegin, the extract of calves' blood that Armstrong said he couldn't pronounce and hadn't used; when French authorities asked questions, it was passed off as medication for a team staff member.
Here are the by-now familiar accounts of refrigerators stocked with vials of erythropoietin and blood bags. Here is the timeline of EPO use shifting to transfusions, shifting to a calculated combination of microdosing both, then morphing again into a horror movie where riders took unthinkable risks with blood stored and delivered and infused in decidedly unsterile conditions. Here are the controlling team director Johan Bruyneel, the skilled but amoral Italian trainer Ferrari, and the Spanish doctors who helped groom riders to accept PEDs, making their use seem practical and inevitable.
But the most compelling aspects of the riders' testimony have to do with flesh and blood in a different way -- the way their hearts and minds and ambitions were manipulated along with their hematocrit. Christian Vande Velde, ambivalent at best about using the PEDs recommended by Ferrari, was told he better literally get with the program or get off the team. Dave Zabriskie, whose father died because of a drug problem, initially resisted doping and cried alone after the first time he was injected with EPO.
It's no secret that Armstrong could be an intimidating character. He demonstrated that many times in public, whether it was competing on the road, lashing out at riders who spoke out against doping or recklessly confronting Hamilton in an Aspen, Colo., restaurant after Hamilton's "60 Minutes" appearance last year. But the case file details other chilling examples, old and new, including ominous texts sent to Levi Leipheimer's wife after Leipheimer testified to the federal grand jury.
None of these riders are heroes for their admissions. They had options, all of them -- to ride without artificial aid; to leave Europe and return to the lower-stakes U.S. circuit; to do something else for a living. Very, very few riders of that era got off the carousel. All of USADA's witnesses benefited at some point, directly or indirectly, from their association with Armstrong and his winning brand.
Yet while it may be hard to muster sympathy, these accounts finally make it possible for us to have a clear-eyed understanding of the environment at that time and the psyche of the young athletes involved. Everyone in their world conveyed the message that doping was necessary to be "professional'' and that the field was level only if they played dirty. Testing was far more of a crapshoot back then, and Armstrong seemed assured cycling's governing body could be co-opted.
USADA's case file should forever torpedo the tired and meritless argument that Armstrong is not guilty because he never tested positive. Neither did most of these witnesses, who as a group over time used banned substances and methods on hundreds of occasions. They avoided being busted partly due to luck, partly due to strategic planning by doctors and trainers, and partly due to the warnings they got about testing itself.
Had Armstrong never made his 2009 racing comeback and stirred the pot -- and had the blackballed Landis not boiled over the following season -- it's a near certainty that the code of silence observed in the peloton would still be intact. These witnesses initially did the right thing only at the point of the federal government's bayonet in 2010.
There were some small windows propped open along the way, such as Frankie Andreu's confession of his own doping to The New York Times in 2006, but he and others who made those kinds of admissions did not point their fingers elsewhere. After absorbing the contents of this file, which help explain the forces aligned on Armstrong's side and the risks of personally challenging him, it's easy to understand why.
It's harder to wrestle with what should come of all of this. What penalty, what punishment, really is appropriate for Armstrong or anyone else in the conspiracy and cover-up who hasn't yet admitted responsibility? Can this much collateral damage ever be repaired or made right?
Odds are Armstrong ultimately will be stripped of his Tour de France titles, but the extent of doping in that era renders moot who would inherit them. Forfeiting prize money and results? A pittance compared to the millions Armstrong made off the road, which he is under no obligation to return. Inability to compete in elite sports? Armstrong will always find a place to race and people who want to race with him, or at least come to watch. He is stubborn enough to be capable of existing indefinitely in a sort of parallel universe where he is still who he purported to be -- a purveyor of hope on wheels.
And there will always be people who loved those three-week travelogues every July and don't want to give up on their longtime protagonist, either. Sunflowers and lavender and Alpine switchbacks are far more appealing images than syringes and blood bags and a cult of personality channeled into coercion. Armstrong's legacy lies now not only in the eye of the beholder but in the willingness of that beholder to take off the blinders and see.