Shortly after Floyd Landis briefly "won" the Tour de France, The Onion started hawking yellow "Cheat to Win" bracelets.
Alas, they are no longer available from The Nation's Finest News Source and likely to be rising in price all over eBay now that Lance Armstrong is about to be stripped of his record number of Tour titles. (For cave dwellers: the cancer-fighting Lance Armstrong Foundation sells today's ubiquitous yellow "Livestrong" bracelets as a way of raising money and awareness to fight cancer; Armstrong was also Landis' mentor.)
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is the august body doing the stripping and while Armstrong claims it doesn't have the authority to take away his titles, he has also declined the fight the decision. That's been taken as an admission of guilt by everyone involved. (Founded in 2000, USADA has jurisdiction over Olympic sports in the U.S. and works with other sports federations around the world.)
"There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough.' For me, that time is now," Armstrong said in a statement sent to The Associated Press. He called the USADA investigation an "unconstitutional witch hunt."
"I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999," he said. "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."
As with the acquittal of Roger Clemens on perjury charges stemming from testimony about steroid use, I'm of a mixed mind at this news. My disregard at the official actions are at odds with my distaste for the public sanctimony of the athletes in question. With Clemens, the most outrageous thing was not whether "the Rocket" had in fact used banned substances (few observers doubt that he did) but that Congress was investigating the matter in the first place. That Clemens volunteered to make sworn testimony in front on Congress—where he was asked such questions as, "Mr. Clemens, do you recall bleeding through your pants in 2001?"—didn't really change the fact that the government shouldn't have been involved in any way, shape, or form.
Unlike Clemens, an always-unlikable figure who is further alienating whatever tiny fan base that still exists by mounting a pathetic comeback bid, Armstrong has raised huge amounts of money for cancer through this Livestrong Foundation (the group whose yellow bracelets gave rise to the Onion's parodic version). Yet his self-promoted legend of being perceived as the embodiment of a squeaky clean competitor pulled down by desperately jealous competitors is phonier than a three-dollar bill. The sanctimony of people such as Armstrong is especially tough to take in the face of cases where athletes really have been falsely accused of breaking rules by which they bound themselves (check out the sad tale of Olympian Butch Reynolds, for instance).
Of course, whether Armstrong is a jerk is unrelated to whether he was a doper. Armstrong had been plagued for most of his career by credible doping charges, which often sounded like sour grapes on the part of jealous competitors. Last year, he was not charged after a long federal anti-doping investigation into what ESPN says were charges similar to what the USADA was looking into. The evidence against Armstrong is both strong (lots of teammates ready to talk) and weak (at the time of relevant tests, he always came out clean).
USADA also said it had 10 former Armstrong teammates ready to testify against him. Other than suggesting they include Landis and Tyler Hamilton, both of whom have admitted to doping offenses, the agency has refused to say who they are or specifically what they would say.
"There is zero physical evidence to support (the) outlandish and heinous claims. The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of (doping) controls I have passed with flying colors," Armstrong said.
Whatever he thinks, his titles are gone. And the sporting public is still left with the same questions that arose in the early 2000s, as baseball started grappling in earnest with its drug policy. As I wrote for Tech Central Station back in the day:
The main argument against steroids and similar drugs is that they somehow screw with the "natural" abilities of players and disrupt the "level playing field." That is, they give "unfair" advantages to players willing to use them. That's why Commissioner Selig frets over the "integrity" of baseball. Steroids, goes this line of thought, turn an authentic competition into something less…real? But if any of that is true, why not ban, say, weight training or off-season workouts? Or special nutritional regimens that stop short of including certain banned supplements? What should be done about Lasik and other interventions that result in better than 20/20 vision? Or reconstructive surgeries that let pitchers throw faster than before undergoing the knife (just ask Chicago Cubs' hurler Kerry Wood)? All of these things muddy that wholly mythical level playing field….
[Rules against performance enhancers]—which have always been arbitrary and have often been pernicious — shouldn't be mistaken for wisdom.
I think any sporting federation or league has the absolute right to set its own rules for behavior—and to toss people out who flout those rules. But in a lot of ways that doesn't get you very far, since athletes will always look for ways around existing strictures to gain a real or imagined edge. Maybe the best we should hope for is that the really smart or lucky ones don't get caught or that leagues open up the floodgates for all sorts of enhancements. And that when athletes do get caught, they make a positive case for why they did what they did and explain how it's all of a piece with trying to compete harder, better, longer, and faster.
Update: Nike stands by Lance Armstrong.
More Update: Outside magazine's excellent story, "LANCE ARMSTRONG: VICTIM?: The embattled cyclist says USADA is out to get him—using powers that it really shouldn't have."