Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Lance Throws In The Towel

Who would have thought that Lance Armstrong would throw in the towel in his drug case?   Last month I briefly reviewed the pros and cons of the case and I was waiting for things to heat up in the next few months before I commented again.  The pro Lance arguments go:

  • He passed a gazillion drug tests.
  • The federal investigation of him was abandoned making many people think there was no clear money trail that could be followed to support allegations of doping.  Systematically beating doping control with blood transfusions is logistically complicated and can’t be cheap.  So if the feds could not find a money trail maybe there wasn’t one.

The anti Lance arguments go:

  • The drug tests are beatable (ask Marion Jones).  So passing drug tests proves nothing.
  • How could he dominate for so long and in many cases so decisively in a sport where a high percentage of the people he was beating were actually caught doping?
  • Some of the power outputs that top people were doing during mountain stages in the Lance era are at the edge of what might be physiologically possible and are probably physiologically impossible.
  • Rumors, rumors, rumors, rumors and would a guy like Lance ever “unilaterally disarm” if he thought the rest of the world was doping? 

Here is what I thought might happen that did not.  I expected a federal judge to rule that United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) was essentially an arm of the government.  As an arm of the government USADA needed to follow certain standards of due process and that they were not.  Lance then gets USADA in court and forces them to admit the limitations of drug testing and that he passed a bunch of tests even though he had been targeted for extra testing.  There are also a number of credible expert witnesses who could easily have shot holes in some of the blood count numbers that USADA had deemed suspicious.  

So then it would have been about what his ex-teammates were willing to say and how all of it sounded to a jury.  A good lawyer could have had a field day.  A star struck jury buys the arguments Lance and his team make and it is Lance 1, USADA 0.

For the younger people reading this post I thought of one precedent, Tarkanian vs. the NCAA, and have been surprised that no one in the mainstream media has made the connection.  The basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian was in essentially a 20 plus year range war with the NCAA about claims of recruiting and other violations in the high profile college basketball programs he ran.   He sued using some of the rationale I outlined above and eventually the case went to the U.S. Supreme court.  Tarkanian lost there, but he was never banned from coaching and won a settlement from the NCAA based on claims that they were persecuting him.   A lot of parallels with what might have happened had Lance pressed on.

Another issue that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media is how the whole issue of doping in sport, especially cycling, might have been handled differently.  One idea is that there should have been a truth commission.  In other words let everyone come clean, tell what they did, name names, and try to learn everything there is to learn about both the technical and cultural aspects of doping.  Don’t strip anyone of medals or titles but get the truth out and improve the testing and compliance programs.  Only go after the people who refuse to come clean.

The truth commission approach has been used to promote social reconciliation in places like post apartheid South Africa.  Maybe it could have been used to clean up high level sport as well.    

There is more than one way to define a level playing field, and in this era of rampant doping the athletes and those around them have been trying to define it themselves.  Failing to use the truth commission or a related approach means that the cat and mouse enforcement games go on and that it is just a matter of time until there is another Marion Jones or Lance Armstrong.   I believe the athletes want clean competition and that the key to this is fixing the culture which will require more than better drug tests.



4 Responses to “Lance Throws In The Towel”

  1. August 24th, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    George Brose says:

    Truth Commission? That’s an interesting concept, applied to a very different population base, ie. the professional athlete. I’ve done some work with people who have been in that process in Rwanda after the genocide and people in Burundi who are organizing a similar exercise. The truth commissions there and in South Africa dealt with heinous crimes against humanity and granted amnesty/foregiveness, and lighter sentences for those who were willing to admit their crimes in public. There was also the piece directed to the families of victims, letting them know what the last hours of the lives of their loved ones entailed. It gave them as sense of closure and also an opportunity to put aside some of the hatred and pain they had been carrying for years. On the surface it would appear that there are few if any innocents in the sport of cycling. Could the offer of a public confession penetrate the psyche of a professional athlete? I think it would depend greatly on the person’s sense of guilt. Possibly no one in this domain has a sense of guilt if there is no perceived victim. However the opportunity of pardon or forgiveness is the other powerful piece in truth and reconcilliation. Foregivess of the past and allowing people to continue in the sport but under greater scrutiny (Is greater scrutiny possible?) would offer a way for those who still have a career to continue.

    As for a trial, I am curious why the ex-teammates were willing to testify against Armstrong. Were they threatened with sanctions by the USADA, or did they just get tired of seeing Armstrong take advantage of the situation? Did they have any reason to lie under oath and say Armstrong was doping if he were not?

  2. August 24th, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Mitch Jackson says:

    As we briefly discussed on Spreecast [see below], as a lawyer I have a big problem with people being found “guilty” of something (1) without any facts and (2) without due process. I don’t know what Lance did or didn’t do but I do know that being involved in extended legal issues and litigation is emotionally and physically draining for clients. It’s hard. It’s takes a great deal of focus (even if you have a good lawyer helping you 🙂 It takes time away from your family and life in general. Maybe he just decided that he’d had enough. Maybe Lance simply decided to “punt” and call it a day. To take on a foreign hearing probably set up in a way that is biased and self-serving (remember the Amanda Knox trial and appeal in Italy), I frankly don’t blame Lance for deciding not to take on this fight. Again, I enjoyed your Spreecast with Seth Everett and am glad we got a chance to meet and chat. Thanks! Mitch

  3. August 24th, 2012 at 4:00 pm

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  4. January 17th, 2013 at 6:39 am

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