As a columnist I wrote frequently about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports—proportionally more than most of my colleagues—so the subject of who might be doping often came up in my presence. The name that surfaced most was that of Lance Armstrong.
I found that interesting because Armstrong wasn’t your run-of-the-mill uberjock. He wasn’t physically imposing and his activity—road cycling—was off the main SportsCenter track. The Tour de France, where he made his bones, is an odd affair, a 2,000-mile journey up, down and around its title country that takes more than three weeks to play out annually. I daresay that few Americans could find the cable channel that aired it, much less watched.
Armstrong’s very ordinariness, though, and his cancer-survivor history, struck a chord with many, as did the idea that pedaling around, as many do, could be viewed as high sport. Somewhere into his seven consecutive T de F victories (1999-2005) he became an A-lister, and stayed that way after his racing days were done. Lots of weekend riders, in their bizarre Spandex togs, are there largely because of his example.
Still, Armstrong’s aura always has been patchy; he seemed too good to be legit, which usually is an indication that someone isn’t. When the does-he-or-doesn’t-he question arose, I firmly registered a “yes” vote. And not only was I convinced the guy was dirty, I had a pretty good idea what he was taking.
One didn’t need access to Armstrong’s medicine cabinet to reach those conclusions. Performance-enhancing drugs had tainted the insular ranks of top-level bike racing as far back as the 1960s, long before he came on the scene, and continued after he’d left it. By the time he’d become prominent two of his predecessors as Tour de France champions—Bjarne Riis (1996) and Jan Ulrich (1997)—had been linked to drug use and later stripped of their titles. Two that followed him—Floyd Landis (2006) and Alberto Contador (2010)-- met the same fate.
Even while Armstrong was denying his own drug use (a course he’s continuing) those around him were taking falls; in one on-line compellation I saw, eight of the top-10 finishers in the 2003 Tour have been found to have taken PEDs at some point in their careers, and I suspect that the other two simply beat the rap. What else could a reasonable person say about someone who was the king of a dopers’ sport?
The main “what” in the Armstrong equation (as well as that of top athletes in other endurance-based sports) was called EPO. That’s short for erythropoietin, a substance that occurs naturally in the human body but has been manufactured in synthetic form since about 1990. Synthetic EPO is intended for people with acute anemia but hardly was out of the bottle before jocks started hijacking it to hype their production of oxygen-carrying (and stamina-increasing) red-blood cells. Overuse could dangerously thicken blood, increasing stroke and heart-attack risk, but that was small concern to some seeking playing-field glory.
The real beauty part about synthetic EPO for athletes was that, because the substance also was naturally occurring, it couldn’t be spotted in the urine tests of the period. I first wrote about it in 1997 after talking to a California biochemist named Allen Murray. A national-level masters swimmer, Murray had turned an off-hand remark by a fellow swimmer into a challenge and in 1993, with help from a small grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee, developed a molecule that would cling to synthetic EPO but not to the natural variety. He figured that, with additional financing, his test could be in place for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Then a funny thing happened—Murray’s phone stopped ringing. With sports bureaucrats pleading small budgets and other priorities, 1996 came and went with no EPO test, and so, too, would the 1998 Winter Games with its potential EPO clientele of cross-country skiers. Murray began to hear whispers that the drug-testing “community,” ever hostile to outsiders such as he, was circling its wagons while hustling to catch up with his results. When an EPO test finally was approved for the 2002 Winter Games it would be one developed by a French lab. By then Murray, sadder but wiser, had returned to his day job of modifying cotton-plant seed strains.
A reliable EPO test wasn’t in place widely until 2004, near the end of Armstrong’s Tour reign, and even then it might have been circumvented by masking agents and an adept user’s dosage timing. (One of sport’s verities is that the users are ahead of the testers.) Armstrong says he’s never flunked a drug test, but while the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report that sunk him says that retesting has uncovered indications of his EPO use dating from 1999, it had so much other evidence of his misdeeds that the lab work was all but irrelevant.
The agency says it has on-the-record statements from 26 people, including 11 former Armstrong teammates, testifying not only to the cyclist’s own dope-taking but also to his drug-distribution activities and pressuring of other cyclists to follow his course. He was, the report says, not only a user but also a pusher, and an aggressive one at that.
Armstrong still proclaims his innocence but has chosen not to fight USADA’s findings, in effect pleading nolo contendere. The T de F, suddenly righteous, has taken away his titles and wants its prize money back, about $4 million. If Lance is smart he’ll fight that because he may need the money to ward off the criminal charges that could result from his drug-store raids. Even seeing him for what he is, it would be a shame if it came to that, wouldn’t it?