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Commentary: Erasing Armstrong’s Tour wins is a messy, necessary step

With his Wednesday dismissal by Nike, Trek and others, and abdication of his chairmanship at Livestrong, the Lance Armstrong saga continues its march towards some form of finality. Barring UCI interference, which seems increasingly unlikely given the momentum of the evidence in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s “Reasoned Decision,” one likely next step will be the official stripping of the Texan’s seven Tour de France titles.

Since the start of the latest round of Armstrong investigations in 2010, there has been a steady drumbeat of fairly vulnerable, sometimes cynical, and often disingenuous reasons aired for why the various investigations should not go forward to their conclusions. The myth of the level playing field. Never failed a test. Too devastating for people in need of hope. It’s all in the past.

But perhaps the weakest, most disingenuous argument has been the one that says Armstrong’s Tour de France titles should not be stripped because, well, in a sport and an event so rife with doping, my lordy, who ever would we give them to? As if justice should be suspended, a host of transgressions left formally unrecognized because it would make the bookkeeping difficult.
Yes, stripping Armstrong’s titles would make a mess of the results sheets, inserting the most glaring red marks yet into cycling’s already questionable permanent record. It will leave an eternal legacy of blanks and asterisks and footnotes that will transcend cycling literature and pass into the general historical record. All for seemingly little real-world impact.

Removing Armstrong’s name from the top of the 1999-2005 Tour results will not change anyone’s recollections of those races, or their already calcified and often highly personal estimations of who the true winners were. Taking away Armstrong’s results — as well as those of others sanctioned during the USADA process — won’t go back and make those races clean or fair or erase the pictures from Sestriere and L’Alpe d’Huez and Le Grand Bornand. It won’t let more deserving people stand on podiums and give stuffed lions to their kids and bouquets to their wives. It will not mend the hurt feelings or alleviate the bitterness of having been cheated. Not for competitors, not for fans, not for those who weighed the system, shook their heads, and went home.

But justice is not tidy. It is never neat in any context, whether it’s sports or criminal courts, and it is rarely satisfying to anyone on anything but a superficial level. Its outcomes are always jagged and messy and imperfect, no matter if they manifest themselves as voided results or suspensions or jail time or worse. Because once we move beyond scrubbing graffiti from schoolhouse desks, no sentence or sanction ever truly undoes the damage caused. Removing Armstrong from the record books cannot retroactively repair a sporting event any more than jailing a drug dealer can cure a user’s addiction or a murder sentence can bring the dead back to life. Justice in the real world always leaves loose ends that can never be tied up, and cycling is no exception.

Despite it all, though, we don’t just let ill-gotten gains stand simply because the sanction doesn’t accomplish everything we wish it would. Not in cycling and or anywhere else. And the removal of Armstrong’s name from the record would accomplish one very important thing — it would validate the sanction. More than case files and tell-all books and financial losses from lawsuits yet to come, those voided results would be the monument to Armstrong’s transgressions that stands the test of time. When all of the currently ubiquitous supporting material falls away, the Tour results will remain as the shorthand for the years of cheating, the subpoenas, the testimony, the intimidation, and the collateral damage — the summary of a sport that so radically lost its way that it cannot name a winner of its flagship event for the better part of a decade.

The “who would we give the titles to” question, posed with a smirking faux naiveté, admittedly makes for a good cocktail party game, though it’s one USADA has partially spoiled. Buried in the files it released a week ago is a table of podium finishers in the Tour de France from 1996-2010, with explanations of doping links, where they exist. Of the 45 podium positions in those 15 years, only nine are without notation, and that may yet change. Going beyond the podium, Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad determined that once all the riders with doping associations are removed from the final general classification of the 1999 Tour, Belgian Kurt van der Wouwer of Lotto-Mobistar would be the winner. He was 11th, 23 minutes and change behind Armstrong. He seems uninterested in the jersey.

In light of that reality, ASO boss Prudhomme has come up with the best solution in an impossible circumstance. He stated on Friday that should the UCI strip Armstrong’s titles, the organization will not name a new winner, as it did when it awarded Oscar Pereiro the 2006 win following Floyd Landis’ disqualification. That was a move — made in haste in the face of what was then considered the worst case scenario — that continues to raise eyebrows in many circles. ASO tried the hand-me-down again when the Court of Arbitration for Sport relieved Alberto Contador of his 2010 title. The optics were better this time, with the title handed to Andy Schleck, who had at least been Contador’s most dogged head-to-head challenger on the road. But the reception was still tepid, in part due to suspicions stemming from Schleck’s association with Bjarne Riis, and few consider Schleck a grand tour winner in anything more than the academic sense. That includes Schleck himself.

And so Prudhomme learned, and this time we will get blanks instead of an asterisk. As punishment, it is almost clever. The blank space will be a constant reminder of Armstrong’s guilt, precisely because so many will know whose name was once there, and those who don’t will ask and learn. As justice for the wronged, though, it is incomplete and clumsy and unsatisfying. But that is what justice often is once it leaves the realm of chest-thumping, head-on-a-plate rhetoric and enters the confines of reality.

Editor’s Note: Ryan Newill has contributed to VeloNews since 1999. You can follow or unfollow him on Twitter at @SC_Cycling.

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