USADA boss Travis Tygart says cycling's code of silence caused Levi Leipheimer's firing and that those who love cycling should take over
BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — There was hope that truth telling would be contagious, that the dark waters of cycling may finally flow to the surface and that riders, coaches and doctors could come clean. That hope took a beating on Tuesday when Omega Pharma-Quick Step fired Levi Leipheimer after he told the truth publicly about his past doping and contributed to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case against Lance Armstrong.
USADA CEO Travis Tygart sees the firing of Leiphiemer as “punishment,” pure and simple, for Leiphiemer’s admission to using performance enhancing drugs during his career. The code of silence Tygart spent years trying to lift has claimed one of his own.
Omega Pharma announced the termination of Leiphiemer’s contract on Tuesday. Team manager Patrick Lefevere said the team was alerted just one hour before Leipheimer admitted to doping last week. In the same statement, the team also said it “commended” Leipheimer for his “open cooperation” in the investigation but ultimately fired him.
“The classic omerta move right? Actions speak louder than words,” Tygart told VeloNews on Tuesday. “On the one hand, they say the congratulate him on coming forward, [but] their action terminating him for being truthful speaks a lot louder than their words.”
Tygart said the Belgian team’s statement that it had only recently learned of Leipheimer’s past doping as part of his testimony to USADA was “absolutely not true,” adding that Leipheimer and a USADA attorney told the team months ago of the investigation, and of Leipheimer’s role.
“To say they were unaware is inaccurate,” Tygart said.
Omega Pharma boss Lefevere admitted in 2007 to having used doping products, including amphetamines, during his own career.
“It’s a powerful story that all these riders have. And should be embraced and should be heard, not kicked to the curb with inaccurate press releases,” Tygart said. “Those who love the sport and not just profit from it financially ought to take it back over.”
Leipheimer did not return a message seeking comment on Tuesday morning, shortly after the Omega announcement. Requests seeking further comment from Omega Pharma officials went unanswered.
There is a concern the firing may result in a chilling effect at a time when cycling has the chance to come clean.
“It seems really clear he’s being punished,” Tygart said. “We really hope that teams out there will appreciate what’s at stake right now… At the end of the day, the last thing the sport needs is an attempt to silence those who had the courage to come forward, because that’s the only thing that’s going to allow the sport to move forward.”
The riders that gave testimony to USADA did so voluntarily, but were punished at home, receiving six-month suspensions and a vacation of results. Six months is the shortest possible sanction under World Anti-Doping Agency Code for athletes voluntarily providing substantive information before they’ve been notified of a violation. The riders, Tygart said, all considered they would be punished, or threatened, on other levels as well.
“Knowing the sport, I was not all that surprised, but disappointed,” Tygart said. “I think they all have contemplated all the consequences, informal and formal consequences, that could come about.”
USADA was concerned with protecting those who contributed to the Armstrong file, but there was only so far the agency could go. USADA officials carefully guarded their case in the weeks prior to its unveiling, but now the information is in the very hands of those who allowed the sport to reach its failed state.
“We’ve been worried from day one about witnesses getting influenced, intimidated, their feet cut out from under them. We’ve been very clear about that, because we know it happens. We’ve seen it happen,” he said, pointing to Armstrong’s text messages to Leipheimer’s wife Odessa, which appear in the dossier, as an example.
Leipheimer finds himself the first casualty since the USADA report went public last week.
“It’s just classic omerta — actions speak louder than words,” Tygart repeated. “I think it’s the narrow-sighted lack of leadership within the sport that has led to the problem to begin with,” he said, adding that those in control of the sport seemed to be interested only in “short-term” profits rather than the long-term health of professional cycling.
“It’s disappointing. We have shown what the culture was, the pressure that kept it… to see it crop up so instantaneously just further perpetuates the problem,” he said.
Now, USADA’s work is largely done. It’s up to the sport’s governing body and teams how it to proceed. “We’re at a juncture, I think,” Tygart said. “We’ve done our job, we’ve handed it off. But they’re at a pivotal point in their history, and we only hope they go in the right direction.”