The Lance Armstrong witch hunt

Barbara Amiel says it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the sanity of cyclist’s decision to end fight against doping allegations

The Lance witch hunt

Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Rarely do I get to the point of wanting, truly, to throw a brick at the television screen. Generally I just have a mumble at the onscreen 1,080-pixel face, saying what a load of merde. But the kitchen TV was new, so I withheld heaving a saucepan at the smug, bald dome of Kevin O’Leary, one-half of CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange. You can see how incensed I am from the ad hominem note that O’Leary is bald.

At issue was Lance Armstrong’s decision last week to stop fighting doping charges and the nullification of his seven Tour de France wins by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). “Enough is enough. The toll this has taken on my family and my work,” said Armstrong, “leads me to . . . [be] finished with this nonsense.” O’Leary’s response was a seven-times incantation (well, nine, if you count a slightly different formulation) of “If you’re not willing to fight, it’s a submission of guilt.”

Armstrong has fought doping allegations for 13 years. He has passed dozens of blood and urine tests, survived a criminal investigation and was facing a USADA hearing, a court with no proper rules of procedure. I don’t know whether Armstrong did or did not take performance-enhancing drugs, but it doesn’t require rocket science to see the sanity of his decision.

Once allegations are made, your kids get bullied, your wife gets hate mail. When the FBI is involved, computers are hacked, phones tapped. Anyone can be pressured into saying anything against you because the FBI, together with agencies like the IRS, can threaten investigations unless you “co-operate.” It’s the contemporary version of evidence obtained on the rack. Of course I’m familiar with this, which shouldn’t make what I’m writing invalid. Experience usually qualifies one as an expert.

And if the authorities decide the jury might not convict because the evidence is weak and the defendant sympathetic—Armstrong fought such terrible cancer and raised half a billion bucks to help others fight—they get a regulatory body like the 11-year-old weakling USADA to carry on the bullying. For Armstrong, whose testicular cancer metastasized to the brain, a show trial is suicidal.

O’Leary should have read Federal Court Justice Sam Sparks’s ruling when he threw out Armstrong’s attempt to get rid of the USADA. Essentially, the judge ruled that his court had no jurisdiction since Armstrong had effectively signed an arbitration agreement with “draconian, temporal reach.”

Sparks wrote that “among the Court’s concerns is the fact that USADA has targeted Armstrong for prosecution many years after his alleged doping violations occurred, and intends to consolidate his case with those of several other alleged offenders, including—incredibly—several over whom USA Cycling and USOC [U.S. Olympic Committee] apparently have no authority whatsoever. Further, if Armstrong’s allegations are true, and USADA is promising lesser sanctions against other allegedly offending riders in exchange for their testimony against Armstrong, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the USADA is motivated more by politics and a desire for media attention than faithful adherence to its obligations to USOC.”

Possibly the first bit of recorded sports cheating occurred in 648 BCE when a doting mother named Pherenice dressed like a man so she could be in her son’s corner in the pugilism event of the original Olympics. This cross-dressing resulted in the rule that trainers and seconds of contestants take part in the nude. By 392 CE, Olympic athletes had become a public nuisance with their sleazy tactics, and the Games were abolished until 1896.

By now, it’s hard to see where the natural body of an elite athlete begins and ends. There’s outside engineering like the 1997 secretly engineered Dutch skates (klapskates), and those mystery bicycles that the British had for the 2012 Olympics—supposedly available for purchase by anyone to pass Olympic regulations, but where were they pre-Games? What is the difference between athletes “unnaturally” using injections of their own blood or EPO, or “natural” training that puts athletes in barometric chambers?

We hear about the equal opportunity to win, but given that some people are born with an extraordinarily high oxygen uptake, why disallow other athletes to equalize their genetic makeup through substances that improve their own? Gold medallist swimmer Ian Thorpe’s size-17 feet acted like flippers. Would a human being with natural or genetically modified webbed feet be allowed to compete?

Boxers are categorized according to weight, but high jumpers are not categorized according to height. The best high jumper is surely the one who jumps the most over his own height. In a recent paper on biomedical ethics in sports, the authors cited this quote: “Athletes have to act on the impossibly thin edge of the acceptable and unacceptable transgression of the body’s natural limits . . . encouraged to experiment and to technologize their bodies, while at the same time risking punishment if . . . caught doing so.” A 1993 Chinese newspaper response to charges that their swimmers were on steroids was that their performance had been made possible by a “muscle building machine” that sends electronically controlled bursts of electricity through the muscles. Choose your poison.

Ambitious parents give their smart kids Ritalin to improve SAT results, or HGH to make them better athletes. Performers take beta blockers to control stage fright. Do we test spelling bee contestants for memory drugs? The best thing would be to let every athlete take whatever. Anything else is selective prosecution. Come to think of it, O’Leary seemed really hyped up on TV: natural testosterone—or . . . maybe??

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