On June 12, the United States Anti-Doping Association (USADA) opened formal action against Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel, Dr. Pedro Celaya, Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, Pepe Marti, and Dr. Michele Ferrari on charges related to a widespread doping conspiracy within the U.S. Postal Service professional cycling team. The following day, USADA CEO Travis Tygart confirmed the action to the media, with Armstrong issuing a statement on his own website.
Here we shall examine the USADA statement, as well as the Armstrong statement, which deserves particular scrutiny. In a follow-up post we shall examine public comments made by other professional cyclists through both the cycling press and social media.
The USADA Statement
“In response to numerous inquiries regarding the public statements made by Mr. Lance Armstrong, we can confirm that written notice of allegations of anti-doping rule violations was sent yesterday to him and to five (5) additional individuals all formerly associated with the United States Postal Service (USPS) professional cycling team. These individuals include three (3) team doctors and two (2) team officials. This formal notice letter is the first step in the multi-step legal process for alleged sport anti-doping rule violations.
USADA only initiates matters supported by the evidence. We do not choose whether or not we do our job based on outside pressures, intimidation or for any reason other than the evidence. Our duty on behalf of clean athletes and those that value the integrity of sport is to fairly and thoroughly evaluate all the evidence available and when there is credible evidence of doping, take action under the established rules.
As in every USADA case, all named individuals are presumed innocent of the allegations unless and until proven otherwise through the established legal process. If a hearing is ultimately held then it is an independent panel of arbitrators, not USADA that determines whether or not these individuals have committed anti-doping rule violations as alleged.
At this time USADA will not comment on the evidence or have further comment unless or until it is appropriate.”
The USADA statement is a straight forward account of the action being taken against Armstrong, and sticks to official language. It is interesting that USADA made any comment at all, as they generally do not. Crucially, the statement closes with a statement that USADA will have no further comment until the issue is resolved or develops significantly.
The Armstrong Statement
“I have been notified that USADA, an organization largely funded by taxpayer dollars but governed only by self-written rules, intends to again dredge up discredited allegations dating back more than 16 years to prevent me from competing as a triathlete and try and strip me of the seven Tour de France victories I earned. These are the very same charges and the same witnesses that the Justice Department chose not to pursue after a two-year investigation. These charges are baseless, motivated by spite and advanced through testimony bought and paid for by promises of anonymity and immunity. Although USADA alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy extended over more than 16 years, I am the only athlete it has chosen to charge. USADA’s malice, its methods, its star-chamber practices, and its decision to punish first and adjudicate later all are at odds with our ideals of fairness and fair play.
I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one. That USADA ignores this fundamental distinction and charges me instead of the admitted dopers says far more about USADA, its lack of fairness and this vendetta than it does about my guilt or innocence.”
The Armstrong statement is not an exercise in subtlety. The tone of the statement immediately gives away the Armstrong strategy: This is not an attempt to win anyone over, but rather to hold onto supporters. The heavy handed implications, indignant tone, and strong language would not persuade anyone who is on the fence about Armstrong, and therefore seems to be aimed at limiting the loss of ardent supporters.
The assertion that USADA is “funded largely by taxpayer dollars, but governed only by self-written rules” is both irrelevant and ill-advised. It is an irrelevant point because nearly all taxpayer funded organizations are governed by self-written rules. Governments exist precisely so that taxpayers needn’t personally approve every rule of every body funded by tax dollars, and allowing appointed representatives to oversee this process is part of our social contract. USADA, for instance, is not a government body, but is partly funded by a grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and is therefore recognized by the United States Congress for its official role.
The reason that the point is ill-advised has everything to do with timing. While Armstrong and his public relations handlers previously painted the federal investigation against him as a waste of taxpayer dollars, arguably with some success, we are now in the midst of a contentious presidential election. Messages regarding tax dollar spending and the role of government have reached a saturation point, which means Armstrong’s attempt to politicize USADA’s action against him will likely fall on deaf ears.
Armstrong also boldly chooses to call the charges against him “discredited,” and points to the fact that the Justice Department elected not to prosecute him after a 2 year investigation. However, federal prosecutors pointed not to a lack of evidence that Armstrong doped, but rather uncertainty of the odds of conviction on conspiracy and racketeering charges.
Armstrong further alleges that the witnesses are “bought and paid for,” which is an ironic turn of phrase considering the fact that Armstrong himself once “donated” $100,000 to the UCI, professional cycling’s governing body, while still racing. UCI President Pat McQuaid later acknowledged that accepting the donation was a mistake, after the matter came to light in the media. Floyd Landis and others have suggested that the donation may have been a bribe given in exchange for covering up a positive test that Armstrong was alleged to have returned in 2001.
Armstrong also states that USADA “punish first and adjudicate later,” which is clearly aimed at painting his temporary ban from competition as punitive. The purpose of the temporary ban, of course, is not punitive but to prevent from the chaos that would result from having an athlete compete, only to be banned shortly thereafter, thus creating a problem with results and prize money.
The end of the Armstrong statement is where it becomes most interesting, however, as it shifts from image management to the assertion of outright falsehoods. Armstrong first makes the irrelevant observation that his accusers have not competed as endurance athletes for as long as he has, which is likely not true in all cases. Then he falsely claims to have competed for 25 years without a spike in performance, also claiming to have never failed a drug test. Neither of these statements are true. Aside from the six positive tests that Armstrong’s 1999 Tour de France samples registered after examination by a French laboratory in 2004, there is also the lingering question of the alleged 2001 positive that Landis claims Armstrong told him he’d had “taken care of.”
Armstrong’s closing sentence highlights focal point of his strategy in managing public perception on the issue: “That USADA ignores this fundamental distinction and charges me instead of the admitted dopers says far more about USADA, its lack of fairness and this vendetta than it does about my guilt or innocence.”
In the previous sentence, Armstrong directly claims to have never doped. Here, however, he chooses to reframe the issue as not a matter of whether he did or did not dope, but whether or not he is being fairly pursued by USADA. This sends a mixed messages, and takes the conviction out of his prior statement.
The Armstrong statement is a desperate, confused, ill-advised approach and will only succeed in convincing the athlete’s most ardent supporters.