Years ago, right about the time steroids were entering into athletics, I asked one of the top trainers in the country why anyone would dare take the darned things. This was when so little was known about the long-term effects, not to mention the side effects, and his answer was crisp and clear: “Because they work.”
Lance Armstrong, surely one of the greatest athletes to ever walk on our planet and said to be a modern-day gladiator after he won the grueling Tour de France a record seven times, had his titles stripped and was banned from cycling for life Friday when years of doping charges became so pestering the great champion threw in the towel.
“Blood doping,” which is just as illegal as using performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in athletics, is a tricky but effective way of competing in endurance events. In a simple explanation of what happens, whole blood is taken from a well-rested, healthy athlete and later, when the same athlete is on the brink of exhaustion and his blood is broken down, the “healthy blood” is transfused back into his body.
You remember when folks complained of “tired blood” when we were kids and they sold all sorts of snake-oil tonics? A person’s own blood is better than drugs and I am told it is virtually impossible to prove without very sophisticated equipment and – as we will probably soon learn – another pair of eyes that see it taking place.
Armstrong, who won the Tour de France from 1995 until 2005, earned our respect on his bike but his battle with cancer – from 1996 through 1998 – was what won our hearts. His fitting mantra – “Live Strong” – became a symbol of personal pride to countless millions who wore the bright yellow armbands. His Nike shoe endorsements and his Texas good looks didn’t hurt, either.
But in June, after years of countless quarrels, allegations and bitter rivalries seemed to suddenly mount, the world-famous athlete was officially charged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) with consumption of illegal performance drugs and doping. They said samples taken in 2009 and 2010 confirmed it, as did the testimonies from men he had beaten.
On Monday of this week U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks threw out Armstrong’s case but said sternly that USADA’s “conduct raises serious questions about whether its real interest in charging Armstrong is to combat doping, or if it is acting according to less noble motives.”
That led to Armstrong’s statement Thursday night when he finally threw in the towel. Armstrong issued a statement that read, “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now.
“I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999. Over the past three years, I have been subjected to a two-year federal criminal investigation followed by Travis Tygart’s unconstitutional witch hunt. The toll this has taken on my family, and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today - finished with this nonsense.”
Tygart, who heads the USADA, wasted no time on Friday in handing down a lifetime ban and stripping “Big Tex” of every title and award. Yesterday he said, “Nobody wins when an athlete decides to cheat with dangerous performance enhancing drugs, but clean athletes at every level expect those of us here on their behalf to pursue the truth to ensure the win-at-all-cost culture does not permanently overtake fair, honest competition."
“Any time we have overwhelming proof of doping, our mandate is to initiate the case through the process and see it to conclusion as was done in this case,” Tygart said, disqualifying Armstrong “from any and all competitive results obtained on and subsequent to August 1, 1998, including forfeiture of any medals, titles, winnings, finishes, points and prizes.”
Obviously that is easier said than done, particularly after hundreds of millions have followed the popular Armstrong for over half of the 40-year-old’s life. “If I thought for one moment that by participating in USADA’s process, I could confront these allegations in a fair setting and - once and for all - put these charges to rest, I would jump at the chance. But I refuse to participate in a process that is so one-sided and unfair,” read Armstrong’s statement.
“Regardless of what Travis Tygart says, there is zero physical evidence to support his outlandish and heinous claims. The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls I have passed with flying colors. I made myself available around the clock and around the world. In-competition. Out of competition. Blood. Urine. Whatever they asked for I provided. What is the point of all this testing if, in the end, USADA will not stand by it?” Armstrong asked.
“From the beginning, however, this investigation has not been about learning the truth or cleaning up cycling, but about punishing me at all costs. I am a retired cyclist, yet USADA has lodged charges over 17 years old despite its own 8-year limitation. As respected organizations such as UCI and USA Cycling have made clear, USADA lacks jurisdiction even to bring these charges,” the cyclist added, noting the USADA is a not-for-profit organization that is not a government entity.
The International Cycling Union said Friday it would withhold any comments until it receives written explanation from the USADA for its actions, saying such a response is indicated when there is no hearing. Either way, Lance Armstrong no longer lives on Mount Olympus.
It is tough to swallow, especially for those of us who watched him rule the Tour de France and who wore our yellow wristbands as he was undergoing brain surgery after his testicular cancer had spread. Back then he had a 40 percent chance to live so, from experience, I’m not quite ready to call this one done just yet.