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Months after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued its landmark report that defined Lance Armstrong’s sporting legacy as a lie, the reasoned decision’s author wonders what true change has been made across professional cycling.
The obvious answer? Not much, he said Monday night.
“And what change has there been? We issued a report [seven] months ago, and the UCI took it so personally that they needed to establish an independent commission to prove what USADA said about them wasn’t accurate,” said Bill Bock, USADA general counsel, at a University of Texas discussion Monday night, entitled “The Real Price of Winning at All Costs: A Discussion about Elite Cycling.”
The USADA attorney also said that of the Americans the anti-doping body approached as part of its investigation, Armstrong was the only one to refuse to work with his agency. The key question USADA asked, Bock said, was if athletes were willing to be truthful to help the sport.
“Lance is the only American rider that refused that request … had he done that? The reason we could go back and seek disqualification of results from 1998 was because of the subversion of the legal system,” said Bock. “If he had been open and honest with us … we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Somewhat shockingly, Bock said that if Armstrong had contributed to the USADA investigation, he would have kept five of his seven yellow jerseys. “Yeah, he would have kept five of them,” Bock said. “And most likely would not have been banned for life.”
Bock was joined on the panel by Betsy Andreu, Greg and Kathy LeMond, and Reed Albergotti, a Wall Street Journal reporter who covers white-collar crime and issues in professional cycling.
The panel was at times a frolic through the bad old days, as LeMond, a three-time Tour winner, recalled the darkening of the peloton as he exited racing, and Andreu discussed Armstrong’s intimidation tactics. At other times the talk revealed new information, as Bock discussed the USADA investigation and profound conflicts with the sport’s world governing body, the UCI.
“Conflict of interest is a foreign concept to the UCI, apparently,” Bock said, noting the organization’s taking money from a rider it clearly failed to police in Armstrong.
There also appeared to be a perception that the UCI protected Armstrong over the years, something Bock likened to Armstrong’s being “too big to fail.”
The conversation didn’t just start and end with the UCI, but rather spanned the sport and some of the sponsors who poured money into Armstrong’s campaigns as well.
“It was a multinational corporation, really,” Albergotti said, citing big-name sponsors like Nike and drug manufacturer Bristol-Myers Squibb, and the sport’s national federations and Olympic bodies.
“And all of it was sort of designed … to keep this one secret. And to not let it out. And everyone on this panel at one point or another stood in the way of that juggernaut,” Albergotti said. “There was a lot lost in this whole story.”
Bock also pointed to information that emerged last week about the UCI’s knowledge of synthetic EPO in Armstrong’s urine samples in 2001.
“As a scientific matter, it was known there was synthetic EPO in those samples,” he said. “Time and time again they lifted Lance up as the face of the peloton.”
Despite this knowledge, Bock noted, the UCI allowed Armstrong to return to competition sooner than would normally be allowed when he announced his racing return in late 2008.
The discussion turned at one point to the federal investigation of Armstrong, which assistant U.S. attorney Andre Birotte quietly closed in February 2012. When asked how USADA benefited from the federal inquiry, Bock said that the wheels that Food and Drug Administration agent Jeff Novitzky put into motion started the momentum USADA needed to press its case.
“What the federal investigation did is it gave people the opportunity to tell the truth, and they liked it,” Bock said. “These guys got tired of living a lie. They were at a point when they wanted to unburden themselves.”
Over some two hours, the emergent theme was one of corruption and exploitation of a system weakened by the draw of a remarkable rider and an even more remarkable narrative, a man who went from cancer survivor to Tour champion.
“It’s almost like they didn’t want to catch somebody,” Bock said. They weren’t taking enough samples to do re-analysis,” he said of the UCI’s tests. Specifically, Bock cited the case of Armstrong in the 2009 Tour de France, his first after returning from retirement. He was tested 10 times at that Tour, only five of which were tested for the blood booster EPO. Armstrong has denied doping during his comeback, but USADA said his blood was indicative of manipulation. In 2010, he said the UCI tested Armstrong at the Tour, but only before the mountain stages, rendering the blood profile over the course of the three-week race incomplete.
“You can spend millions of dollars on a biological passport program, which they do … but you’ve got to look at the data,” he said. “There’s a little bit of a concern about somebody being asleep at the switch.”
Albergotti noted, though, that drug testing clearly isn’t enough.
“One thing we’ve learned in covering this is that drug testing alone doesn’t work,” he said. “You have to offer riders deals. When they do get caught, just come in and come clean.”