In the world of sports, Lance Armstrong has long been held up as the epitome of performance. He’s won the Tour de France seven consecutive times after defeating testicular cancer. Of course, such success doesn’t come without doping charges, and Armstrong’s career was plagued with them. He fought those charges for years, accusing the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency of running a witch-hunt. But the battle is finally over. Yesterday, Armstrong announced that he would no longer fight the doping charges against him. His surrender marks an end not just to his battles, but to his entire career.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) decided late last night to ban Armstrong from cycling for life, and recommended that he be stripped of his seven Tour de France victories. Their CEO, Travis Tygart, issued the following official statement:
It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes. This is a heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture of sport, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe and honest competition, but for clean athletes, it is a reassuring reminder that there is hope for future generations to compete on a level playing field without the use of performance enhancing drugs.
Now, Armstrong isn’t admitting he doped. Here’s the beginning of his official statement:
There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, “Enough is enough.” For me, that time is now. I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999. Over the past three years, I have been subjected to a two-year federal criminal investigation followed by Travis Tygart’s unconstitutional witch hunt. The toll this has taken on my family, and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense.
The decision might come as a surprise to some. Just a few months ago, Armstrong filed a lawsuit against the USADA, accusing them of running a “kangaroo court” designed to find athletes guilty. The USADA is a strange organization, and it’s somewhat unclear whose rules they play by. Deadspin writes:
There are thorny legal issues raised about USADA, a quasi-governmental organization, ones that have never really been hashed out before. Armstrong claims his due process is violated by an arbitration process that doesn’t allow accused athletes to subpoena documents or compel witnesses to testify on their behalf. Additionally, Armstrong claims USADA has violated federal laws by promising reduced doping suspensions to former teammates, in exchange for their testimony against him.
But the most fascinating aspect of these filings are just how personal and vicious they are. Armstrong claims that USADA believes it is “above the United States Constitution, above the law, above court review, free from supervision from any person or organization, and even above its own rules.” Armstrong goes on to allege that USADA CEO Travis Tygart and FDA agent Jeff Novitzky are obsessed with “getting” Armstrong, a “big fish” to justify USADA’s existence—and the $10 million in federal funds it receives annually.
The charges against Armstrong by the USADA were that he “… used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone during the period from before 1998 through 2005 and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and hGH (human growth hormone) through 1996.”
EPO stands for Erythropoetin. It’s a hormone made by the kidneys that helps the body produce more blood cells. This is a good thing for an athlete, because more blood cells means your body can carry more oxygen, which means you have more endurance. A convenient thing to have if you’re, say, riding really really far on a bicycle.
Blood doping is different. As The Conversation explains, “Blood is drawn from the athlete earlier in the season, stored, and then re-injected when performance enhancement is required, instantly increasing the haematocrit.”
Detecting both of those things can be really hard. First, there’s a natural variability in how many red blood cells people have. So just because someone has a lot, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doping. And, because it’s the athletes own blood, there aren’t any foreign agents to look for. Tests to blood doping have to look instead for minute levels of plastics that the blood was stored in, or other markers. USA Today explains:
Some pharmaceutical drugs contain tiny chemical “markers” to make detection easier. But some drug manufacturers have been reluctant to add markers to their products because of the expense of testing for safety and the possibility of bad reactions from legitimate patients. When widespread blood doping was exposed in the 2006 Operation Puerto investigation in Spain, anti-doping authorities lacked the means to detect that transfusions had taken place. Detection technology has since advanced to the point where drugs and other chemicals can be found in quantities as small as four-trillionths of a gram (one gram equals 0.035 of an ounce.)
For Lance Armstrong, the case has always been fuzzy. Die hard fans can’t bear to think their hero might have cheated. Others have found it hard to believed that his superhuman achievements were possible without drugs. Bicycling Magazine sums up the ten most salient arguments against Armstrong, from selling bicycles to finance doping, to fellow cyclists claiming that when they doped, they saw Armstrong do it too.
A few years ago, an article in Bicycling Magazine wondered whether we’ll ever know if Armstrong doped, and whether we care. Bill Strickland, author of Tour de Lance, a book about Armstrong’s attempt to return to the 2009 Tour de France, writes:
We live in a different age, one that may not allow the forgiveness of Lance Armstrong, that may hold him to be the creator rather than the product of the era he reigned over. We might even judge this champion’s cheating and lying too vile to permit the remembrance of the part of him that, even now, convinced that he doped to win the Tour, I can’t stop being a fan of…
More from Smithsonian.com: