Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Empty Podiums – Just one amateur’s opinion

It's easy to get excited 
when you've kicked everyone's ass!

About10 weeks ago, Lance Armstrong announced to the world that he was tired of fighting the USADA, an entity charged with being the final say in screening for performance enhancing drugs.  His announcement managed to sound self-pitying, while lashing out at his accusers as he has at every step in the process over the years.

As soon as he announced this, the USADA immediately stripped him of all his titles won between 1999 and 2005, including his seven-in-a-row Tour de France wins.  Interestingly, as of today the Tour hasn’t said whether or not it would follow the USADA’s ruling and award those wins to someone else.  (I’m not surprised.  One almost needs to go down to about 10th place in any of those years to find someone that hasn’t been suspended or banned for doping during the same time frame.)  They could, though, and we’ll have to wait for the outcome.

Cycling forums and blogs immediately lit up with discussions, some of them as vitriolic as a presidential debate, about LA’s acceptance of guilt (by giving up) or admittance of nothing (his statement) or what a first class prick the guy is.  (Lots of reports on that one;  I’ve never met the guy, myself. Ever meet a world #1, in any sport, that didn’t have ego issues?)  The names he is called, and frankly just about anyone that defends him, are so vindictive and obnoxious that you wonder where this sort of thing comes from.  (Cancer Jesus?  Really?)

As a cyclist, I’ve been asked by many non-cycling friends and acquaintances, did Lance cheat? (I’ve even asked myself the same question.)  I’m going to try to come up with some answers here.

History Lesson

If you’re not a cyclist, let me give you a little background.  Professionals and top amateurs, in nearly every sport that is played at the ultimate level, cheat.  Or, at least, push the boundaries of the rules.  Baseball players will make it look like a catch instead of a trap to make an out.  Football linemen hold.  Basketball players attempt to draw a charge with a little acting. NASCAR crew chiefs add or adapt a part to shave weight or boost horsepower.  It’s considered to be part of the game and the reason they all have referees or umpires or post-race inspections. 

(One exception is golf. Golfers are supposed to call penalties on themselves and, for the most part, do so.  Typically, several times a year, players on the PGA Tour call penalties on themselves that result in the loss of a huge sum of money.  Their response is always, “Hey, that’s the way the game is played.” If they don’t call it, it’s usually because they didn’t know they’d broken the rule and occasionally, a TV viewer will call in.  How’d you like someone at your job watching you all the time!)

Graeme McDonnell  
Called a penalty on himself a couple of years ago; 
potentially lost $500,000 for doing so.
Yep, he's a baller. (Of the rules.)

Cycling is no different.  Cyclists have been looking for ways to gain an advantage for as long as there have been races.  The amount of suffering that each rider sustains when performing at the highest level is huge.  If one is still lagging behind others, despite having given everything one has, there has to be something to help catch up.  Don’t think so?  Here’s a picture from the 1920s of the front of the peloton at the Tour de France. 

 "Hey, Pierre, got a match?"

The top riders are all having a smoke before heading up a climb into the mountains.  Why?  Because it was thought that a menthol cigarette helped to “open the lungs” and make a rider faster during an ascent.  Wow.  It’s hard to believe that a menthol Gauloise was one of the first PEDs, isn’t it? (There was a time when I thought Marlboros were, I suppose.)

Once it was understood, scientifically, what helped and what didn’t, riders began getting more creative.  A popular helper for quite a while was Dexedrine, along with Benzedrine, an “upper” that gave more energy.  (Think caffeine with more umph!  Bennies and Dexxies were also popular in the NBA, NFL, and MLB back in the 60s and 70s.  Long road trips, night games and the like contribute to that run down feeling.)

Hey, I like a cup of coffee in the morning.  I see plenty of folks drinking Red Bull, too.  I need that just to get my head right!

While other sports went off to study the muscle building capabilities of steroids, cycling headed in other directions.  It isn’t that steroids don’t help.  You need muscles to pedal a bike and if you can keep the power to weight ration in line (more power vs less weight) they come in handy.  What you really need in an endurance sport is the ability convert oxygen into energy.  It’s referred to as VO2 or Max VO2 and it can be affected by exercise…..or other things.  That’s where “blood doping” comes in. 

Caution, oversimplified science coming!  
(And I’m not a scientist but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express, last night.)

You may recall from classes in school that red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs out to your muscles.  The amount of blood cells you have in your system is kept under control by your body.  But, you can fool your body into having more of them for a short period of time by removing some of your blood (like they do in blood drives, or when you sell it at the blood bank to buy something you really need) and then waiting for your body to replace what you took out.  (This takes about six weeks to replace an entire pint.  That’s why you’re only supposed to donate once every six weeks.)  
According to Google Images this picture came from the LiveStrong Foundation
How ironic is that?

Now, put that pint back in and you’ve got more red blood cells than anyone else (that didn’t do this) and, in theory, your body has the ability carry more oxygen to the muscles and perform at a high level for longer.  Say, up a mountain stage or for a long sprint to the finish. Or for the entire length of a long bicycle race, like the Tour de France.  (That’s three weeks and over 2,000 miles.) 

Since it was your own blood, it would be difficult to trace the fact that you've done anything except that a blood sample would have a higher concentration of red blood cells.  Probably just genetic, right?

Over time, science continued to improve, both in the testing for doping and in the methods for doing it.  Instead of just pee tests for amphetamines, testers began looking at blood tests to determine if anyone was blood doping.  The riders began looking for other ways to do it (EPO is the most popular) so that the testers couldn’t detect and on, and on.  

Today, the USADA and other testing organizations claim they’ve reached the point where they’ve wiped out all of this doping.  (Sure they have.  And dead people can no longer vote in Chicago.  And my dog can’t get a credit card, either.)  They’ve cleaned up the sport and want to make a statement about it by wiping out the record of the biggest TdF winner of all, whom, they also claim, is a doper.

How many times do I have to Pass this Test?

To his credit, Lance claims to be the most tested athlete in history, and been tested over 500 times and has never failed a drug test. The USADA claims that they have examples where his blood work indicates he was doping and they have alleged testimony from other riders who watched him do it.  (Pay no attention to the fact that these witnesses have all come clean about their own doping and are willing to testify to get a lighter suspension or none at all.)  Since the USADA isn’t governed by a court of law, there is no presumption of innocence; if they say you’re guilty, that’s where things start and you have to prove differently.

Yeah, but why work on all this ancient history?

I have no idea why the USADA feels it needs to suspend someone who has retired and won the last of these big races seven years ago.  It appears that the organization is making a statement that no one is safe from scrutiny and Armstrong is, by far, the largest target. 

There must be some precedence for this, right?

The history of doping, testing, and penalizing people for doing it goes back about fifty years or so.  Except for what’s gone on in the last decade or so, penalties haven’t been all that severe.  (Hmmm....that's about how long the USADA has been around.)

Eddie Mercx, arguably one of the greatest of all time, failed testing three times and was expelled from one race in the middle, and stripped of the other two titles.  He did admit to one of those but claimed innocence on the other two.  I can’t find any evidence of do-overs on testing, which is what they're doing to Armstrong here, from 13 years prior.  That said, I’m not sure the protocols and testing was all that sophisticated back then, either, so maybe it couldn't be done.

(Eddie Mercx, by the way, was nicknamed The Cannibal.  One of his competitors was asked by his daughter how a race went and he replied that, “the Belgian doesn’t even leave you crumbs, he’s a cannibal!” and the nickname stuck. How strong is that?!  Over a decade of racing, he won almost 50% of events in which he rode!  He’s the only rider to have won GC, Points, and King of the Mountains in the same TdF!  The Cannibal was truly a monster.  Reading about his dominance in the sport helped me understand that he was the Ultimate Baller.)

Did Lance cheat or not?

There is a part of me that wants to believe he did not, that it’s a witch hunt, that 500 passed tests provide a preponderance of evidence to that affect.  For a long time, I’ve pointed to all those clean tests in support of my belief that he’s simply the best.

There is another part of me that says where there is smoke, there must be fire.  That there are too many coincidences, stories, admissions, and accusations to believe that he didn’t enhance his performance in some manner.  This part of me is growing larger all the time but won’t be my true belief until I get to see something real, and reliable.

I really believe he was the greatest cyclist of his generation and I want to believe he did it clean.  At this point, all I can say is he appears to have done it about as cleanly as everybody else, based on the testing.  (I reserve the right to retract that statement but I don't think I'm going to have to do so.)

If he did dope, he was stronger than everyone else as he won all those Tours and just about everyone was doping, too.  If he didn’t dope, he killed everybody else because most of them were doping!  Regardless of whether or not he doped, his performance was so dominating!  He was a great strategist, he may have had the best "bike smarts" in history, and he understood how to strategize and execute a great team plan.  (He was the first guy to put together a team of different sponsors, companies, equipment and make them all come together in a well-oiled machine.  Many of today's teams are trying to replicate that, still.)

He and his foundation, LiveStrong, have also done an awful lot of good, and will continue to do so, for people and their families that are living with cancer.   They’ve raised over $500 Million and the money continues to roll into the foundation, even after this occurrence.

Because of that, no matter what he did, he gets a pass from me.  Ride on, Lance.

Respectful comments are welcomed.  Anything else will be moderated.  Bring it.