PtG Article 28.10.2013

The Armstrong Case – What lessons can be learned?

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was one of the world’s greatest sporting icons – a global superstar who banked 700 million dollars from employers and sponsors during his career.

Armstrong was a cancer warrior, a crossover star, and an all-American hero. Some even claimed that his presence gave cancer patients a renewed will to fight.

William Bock, the US Anti Doping Agency legal enforcer who headed his organisation’s legal action against Armstrong, told Play the Game 2013 that the case served as a “massive counterweight to the myth that the public does not care about doping”.

Despite Armstrong’s huge popularity across the world, Bock said, the public’s judgment following his January 2013 doping admission had been a rejection of his performances. Sponsors had fled and apparel sales had plummeted.

“What gives sporting performances value is the belief that they are not chemistry experiments,” he said.

Bock, the US Anti-Doping Agency’s General Counsel, told the Play the Game conference that most athletes “don’t want to dope”. However, he pointed out that tremendous pressure to use drugs exists in sports such as cycling, where many riders see no other way of becoming competitive.Often they are told – as Armstrong famously told his US Postal team colleagues – “dope or you are off the team”.

The US rider’s decision to dope should not be taken in isolation, Bock said. Cycling’s recent history should not be seen as the Armstrong era – it should be seen as the ‘era of blood doping and EPO’. 

Armstrong’s actions helped force fellow riders into a “never ending arms race,” he said, in which they were under tremendous pressure to dope in order to compete with their doped rivals.

Critical time for sport

Armstrong’s economic means and public persona meant that he was able to manipulate the sport’s decision makers, and make cyclist’s ruling body UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) a de facto accomplice in his attempts to counter doping allegations, Bock said.

UCI “fought tooth and nail” against the US Anti Doping Agency’s legal action against Armstrong, Bock pointed out, disputing the US body’s legal jurisdiction and refusing to provide samples.

UCI claimed that its testing exonerated Armstrong, and its documents were used in Lance Armstrong’s legal defence. The UCI only recognised Armstrong’s transgressions when it had no other options available, Bock said. Though progress has been made, Bock concluded, the doping era is not over.

“This is a critical time for elite sport,” he said. “Those who look the other way have blood on their hands.”

More flexibility needed in drug testing

Herman Ram of the Netherlands' Anti-Doping Authority said that existing drug testing models needed to be made more flexible and adaptable to individual circumstances. Cases like Armstrong’s, which were “corrupting the sport to its roots,” should always be prioritized, he said, and resources should be better- targeted and used more effectively.

“We should not be forced to do the same thing in every case,” he said.  More sociological research was needed into doped athletes’ motivations, Ram said, and their decision-making should be analysed in greater detail. Doping investigators know too little about where athletes’ “weak spots” lie, he said.

While greater co-operation was needed between all stakeholders, success in the fight against doping depended on investigators choosing the correct priorities and making the right choices, Ram concluded.