Oct 22, 2012

The myth of Livestrong innocence

If I were a professional cyclist and a cancer survivor with a charity, and needed a high PR profile with an American hero status, and I wasn’t above subverting everything within my reach to my own purpose, perhaps I would’ve used such a charity as means to serve my own ends, hoping one day it will save my neck when the proverbial shit hits the fan.

The last of Lance Armstrong’s sponsors Oakley released a statement earlier today – after the UCI finally officially stripped all of his palmares going back to Aug. 1, 1998 – parroting what all of his other sponsors said last week, “we will no longer deal with Lance Armstrong, but will continue to support the Livestrong Foundation.”

From the sponsors’ standpoint, I can understand the PR move. They had a very tough choice, with only one financially palatable option. Their choices were: 1. Drop both Lance and Livestrong, in which case they could face a PR backlash for ceasing support for cancer awareness. 2. Continue their present relationships with both, which, if not financial suicide, would be a horrible business move. 3. Drop Lance and maintain their support for the charity. This was likely seen as splitting the baby, but that was the sponsors’ business move.

It is now difficult for apologists to defend Lance with the common “he never tested positive” defense. Those who now make the “even playing field” argument (I’ve made the argument myself in the past.) signal they haven’t adequately familiarized themselves with the evidence made public by USADA. The apologists’ last stand is Livestrong. “Even if he was a cheat and a doper, he’s still a cancer survivor and he’s done a lot for cancer.” That’s a loose paraphrase of the commonly proffered statement. I don’t buy it and here’s why.

Surviving cancer. Yes, he got cancer and survived, can’t argue with that. However, I’d be interested to hear from an oncologist on what the use of testosterone, hgh and steroids do to the risks of testicular cancer. (Remember that those are substances he admitted to using in 1996 while talking to his doctors in front of Frankie and Betsy Andreu as well as his girlfriend at the time and an Oakley rep.) I make that statement with full understanding that even if those substances increase risk, there is absolutely no way to show causation. So let’s give him that – he’s a cancer survivor. But so are millions of Americans.

(No)Money for research. I can’t believe there are still individuals, and some very well respected publications, making statements that Livestrong has done a lot for cancer research. The fact of the matter is that relatively speaking, Livestrong has done almost nothing for cancer research. Livestrong realized early on that it was too small to make an impact in research, so it moved to awareness. Virtually no money went to research after 2005 and very small sums were doled out prior. But even with that platform, funds are sometimes used in questionable ways. Not questionable as in fraudulent, but more in the sense of, “does it really make sense for a cancer charity to do this?” This is a great piece on the Livestrong Foundation in Outside Magazine.

Lobbying efforts. A recent story by the Wall Street Journal examined lobbying efforts by Livestrong on behalf of Lance Armstrong. Namely, a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, hired by the Livestrong Foundation, paid a visit to congressman Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) to discuss looking into USADA and its federal financing (all $10 million of it annually). I typically don’t think of lobbying efforts on behalf of a cancer awareness charity involving blocking funding for an organization created to prevent doping in sports. Ask yourselves, what would motivate Livestrong to do this? Protecting its cash cow (and chairman at the time) is the first thing that comes to my mind.

Questionable payments. On Feb. 3, 2012, the Livestrong Foundation donated $100,000 to Planned Parenthood. The other interesting thing that happened that day is that the federal government officially closed its investigation of Armstrong without reason, or explanation, and contrary to the wishes of those in charge of handling the investigation. Coincidence? If so, it sure as hell is a convenient one.

Does Livestrong do good things? Yes, of course. Is it also a PR front for Lance Armstrong? There’s very little doubt in my mind that’s the case. I’ve donated to Livestrong and I don’t feel cheated, or angry, or entitled to my money back. But I won’t be making any more donations to that organization. I will continue to support other cancer charities because I feel my money will be better used and actually go to research directed at curing this horrible disease.

So what now? I believe Livestrong can go on without Lance Armstrong, but two things have to happen first. One, Lance needs to be completely out with no ties to the organization. Two, an independent accounting firm needs to do a complete audit and determine how much money was spent on ultra vires activities. Once those two things happen, the charity can survive and prosper and continue to fill the niche it has self-chosen without Lance casting a shadow of doubt over its motivations.

Oct 18, 2012

The cycling cynic syndrome

For the most part, I’m not an overly cynical person. Sarcasm with a dose of realism and healthy skepticism is perhaps a better characterization of my nature. However, when it comes to professional cycling today, cynicism is quickly taking over.

This goes beyond Lance Armstrong, but it is due to his prosecution by USADA that myriad doping violations have been exposed in the ranks of pro cycling over the last two decades.

I love cycling. I love racing, reading about it, watching it on TV, rooting for the favorite to win (or sometimes the underdog). But having read nearly all of 1000 pages of the USADA report, the next time I watch a professional race, I’m not sure I’ll know what it is I’m watching.

Like many sports fans, I love an incredible performance. I love to see an attack at the bottom of the climb that blows the field to pieces. I love to see a heroic comeback. I love to see the expression of pain on a rider’s face as he crosses the finish line in a TT, having just come back from behind to win. No doubt, 2013 will have those moments, but instead of rooting and cheering, I’m afraid I’m going to be asking myself, “What the hell am I looking at? Did I just see an incredible performance, or does this guy just have a better doctor?” That's no way to watch a bike race.

I don’t want to have to ask those questions, and I’m certain that I’m not the only fan out there who feels this way. Looking back at 2012, I’m not quite certain what I’ve seen.

Joaquim Rodriguez finished on top in the UCI rankings this season. But today news broke of several of his teammates (Kolobnev, Gusev, Menchov and Ignatiev) being linked to Dr. Ferrari, doping and money laundering. Even if Rodriguez himself is not implicated, winning with the help of doped up teammates is as bad as being doped up yourself. Isn’t it?

And what about Alberto Contador’s triumphant return to cycling at this year’s Vuelta? I like the guy (which wasn’t always the case), but he too has ties to Ferrari and has already served a doping ban. Not to mention he’s passed through the hands of Johan Bruyneel. I want to believe he’s clean now, but I can’t.

Team Sky has Sean Yates, who somehow managed to remain blind to everything that was happening on Team Discovery Channel in 2005 as it ran the most sophisticated doping conspiracy in professional sports. And likewise "forgot" to delve into the past of 'Mick' Rogers and the team doctor Dr. Leinders, both of whom have been implicated in the Armstrong case as being involved in doping. So now when I think back to Bradley Wiggins’ dominant performance at the Tour de France, I don’t know if what I saw was a dominant performance, or another case of a medical miracle. Seeing Wiggo with a bandage over his vein after the TT didn’t help either.

Do I even need to go into any sort of detail about Vinokurov’s win at the 2012 Olympics? I think you see my dilemma.

The problem that’s facing cycling is twofold. First, the penumbra of doping uncovered in the Armstrong controversy is so broad there are few teams and riders not touched by it. There are riders, trainer, soigneurs, doctors, DSs and coaches from that era of cycling throughout the professional sport today. And as soon as new talent joins the pro peloton, it is only a matter of time before he’s touched by one of these people and is then forever tainted by cynical suspicion.

Taylor Phinney (BMC) and Joe Dombrowski (Sky) are great examples. They are both young riders on teams committed (on paper) to clean cycling, but where did they have their start? Bontrager Livestrong run by Axel Merckx, a former doper himself, as implicated by the USADA investigation. I’d like to believe that they weren’t corrupted in their days at Bontrager, but I don’t know! Ben King and Matt Busche are in the same boat, having worked with Bruyneel.

I don’t know how much training Cadel Evans did with Ferrari, but it is enough that I know he did some. I’m even prepared to accept Evans’ explanation that he never used Ferrari for doping, but at the same time in the back of my mind, I can never rule it out. 

I’m not accusing any of the riders mentioned in the above two paragraphs of doping. But as much as I really want to believe they have never touched a prohibited substance to gain an unfair advantage in the pro peloton, today I cannot bring myself to make that statement with 100 percent certainty.

The second part of the problem is the omertà – the mafia-like silence of the peloton. As I thought about my dilemma, I also thought of what it would take for me to sit down, watch a bike race, and be near damn certain that what I’m seeing are clean athletes showing their true, human potential. This will happen when with extreme regularity, riders will blow the whistle on their team managers, teammates, doctors and trainers for using unethical methods to gain an unfair advantage; and those riders will be seen as heroes and not as traitors. They will be praised, not fired. They will be shown to the world as examples of clean cycling, not as vindictive and jealous liars. It will take more than riders: it will take management, race organizers, sponsor and the UCI working together for the benefit of the sport and not their own.

When the peloton as a whole accepts the notions of openness and transparency, professional cycling will begin to shed the gray cloud that has hung over it for the last 20 years. 

Oct 3, 2012

Cycling's biggest clowns

These are of course Hein Verburggen and Pat McQuaid, the corrupt fools, who protect certain cyclists and have accepted bribes from Lance Armstrong to cover up his positive doping tests in 1999 and 2001. Coincidentally, they are also the past and present presidents of the UCI, respectively, and somehow never manage to run out of shit to be full of.

Now, if I were Floyd Landis, and I said the above, and I happened to be in Switzerland, I’d be in some major trouble with the authorities. The UCI has adopted an unusual practice of dealing with critics – it drags them to court. Which is exactly what it did with Landis, who refused to challenge the charges in a Swiss court and had an order entered against him, prohibiting him from saying the above and more. But I’ll get back to the order in just a bit.

First, I’d like to turn to UCI’s policy in general. In an article in Cycling News, Verburggen was quoted as saying: “…everyone that says we have put things under the table or not done our best is sued. Simple. They can come to the court and prove their case. Simple like that.” This is an astounding statement. He doesn’t say that if someone says something false about the UCI they’ll get sued, but simply that anyone who suggests that the UCI has concealed doping allegations will be dragged to court. This may have been an off the cuff remark, but it certainly doesn’t make it look like the UCI has nothing to hide, quite to the contrary.

Now then, the order. You can download a copy here for your own amusement, but I will reproduce the most interesting paragraph:

The Chair of the Court, ruling immediately in a closed hearing:… forbids Floyd Landis to state that the Union Cycliste Internationale, Patrick (Pat) McQuaid and/or Henricus (Hein) Verbruggen have concealed cases of doping, received money for doing so, have accepted money from Lance Armstrong to conceal a doping case, have protected certain racing cyclists, concealed cases of doping, have engaged in manipulation, particularly of tests and races, have hesitated and delayed publishing the results of a positive test on Alberto Contador, have accepted bribes, are corrupt, are terrorists, have no regard for the rules, load the dice, are fools, do not have a genuine desire to restore discipline to cycling, are full of shit, are clowns, their words are worthless, are liars, are no different to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, or to make any similar other allegations of that kind.

So as you can see, if the first paragraph of this blog were in fact uttered by Landis in Switzerland, and someone heard it, he’d be in a heap of trouble with the Swiss courts. But aside from that trifecta, Landis can pretty much scream at the top of his lungs from any balcony in the world (provided it’s not in Switzerland) that Pat McQuaid and Hein Verburggen are the Muamar Gaddafi of the UCI and absolutely nothing will happen to him. Interestingly, however, as was pointed out by a friend, given the specificity of the order, Pat and Hein seem to have no issues with being compared to Hitler. Go figure.

This verdict, aside from the fact it’s absurd to the point of hilarity, raises several issues. This action in and of itself, together with the current lawsuit pending against the journalist Paul Kimmage*, demonstrates that McQuaid is not qualified to lead the UCI into the future. And neither is anyone of similar mindset – hiding the truth instead of taking a personal and professional stake in cleaning up the sport (incidentally, Landis isn’t allowed to say that either). Instead of opening up an internal, independent investigation into its past practices to show it is really not guilty of any wrongdoing, the UCI is using legal maneuvers to shut up its critics. In all likelihood because McQuaid already knows what such an investigation would unravel.

statement issued by the UCI after the Landis verdict, it reads: “The judgement [sic] upholds and protects the integrity of the UCI and its Presidents.” Except it doesn’t because at no time was Landis there to present contrary evidence, and taking such pride in winning an argument with yourself seems bizarre if not insane. If McQuaid is really trying to help the UCI, he’ll stop wasting its money on lawyers and hire an independent auditor.  And even better, he’ll resign. Please resign, Pat!

The order also requires Landis to pay thousands of Swiss franks to Verburggen and McQuaid as well as court costs. Neither the Swiss court nor the two UCI presidents (past and present) will ever see a cent of that money. Landis’ attorney was absolutely correct in saying that “this verdict is un-American.” This isn’t some sort of an ethnocentric statement. Rather, it speaks to the fact that no court in the U.S. would enforce such a judgment, resulting from someone voicing his opinion and criticizing a public body. This is so against public policy in the U.S. that the UCI would simply get laughed out of court. This is assuming they could even get into court because U.S. is currently not a signatory to any international agreement with regard to enforcements of foreign judgments.

The question I’m sure many are asking is: if the UCI is so bad for the sport, why isn’t there some sort of an uprising to overthrow the leadership and install someone who cares more about clean cycling and less about keeping up appearances?

My guess is the answer to that question lies in how cleverly the UCI has positioned itself – nearly any attack or criticism is potentially career-ending on many levels. The UCI assigns pro-tour licenses; it assigns event statuses to races; and it also accredits some journalists to cover races. So a manager being very vocal against the UCI can see his team downgraded. A promoter of a race can face the same wrath; and journalists can simply be rendered unemployable.

Which is why now, ironically, the people who can save the UCI are the ones no longer under its control: Landis, Hamilton, Kimmage and even Lance Armstrong, if he ever decides to stop being a lying asshole.

*If you wish to donate to Paul Kimmage’s defense fund, you can do so by following the link.

Oct 1, 2012

Tyler Hamilton made me hate Lance Armstrong

Well, perhaps “hate” is too strong a word. “Loathe” and “despise” are probably better choices. And thinking a bit more about it, Hamilton really didn’t make me feel anything; Armstrong took care of that himself.

Any delusions I had about Armstrong having won his seven tours clean passed so long ago, I don’t dare take a stab at a date. I’ve known he was a cheat who broke the rules to win, but that didn’t make me loathe or despise him. It gained him zero points on the respect scale, but that was about it.

Then, The Secret Racecame out, written by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle. My knee-jerk reaction was the desire to read the book, coupled with the uncomfortable feeling of allowing someone (Hamilton) to further profit from doping by writing about doping. I was able to resolve my dilemma by borrowing the book from a friend, and thus avoiding depositing any further royalty profit into Hamilton’s account.

Of course, as many you would probably love to point out, Coyle would also be missing out on the profit having done nothing wrong. Prior to having read the book, I would have told you that I’m OK with that because he’s helping an ex-doper make more money from the ex-doping and that shouldn’t be rewarded either. However, after having finished reading the borrowed copy, it had such a profound effect on me, I bought my own copy.

So how is it that this book inspired all these negative emotions toward Armstrong? Well, I dislike cheats. I have no respect for someone who breaks the rules to gain a competitive advantage. Period. However, while I merely lack respect for cheats, I reserve "loathe and despise" for hypocrites.

Armstrong was a hypocrite because while he expected everyone to keep quiet and be loyal to him, to the team and to the concept of omertà, he apparently had no qualms about calling the UCI and reporting athletes whose performance he deemed “not normal,” i.e., they rode better than he did. While the book only mentions Hamilton learning about Armstrong’s call from Landis, there were a couple questions left unanswered for me.

The book is organized in chronological order, and it seemed odd to me that riders would get caught as they were getting closer and closer to beating Lance. Coincidence? Perhaps, but if Landis is to be believed about the incident with Hamilton, how do we know that Armstrong didn’t call the UCI to report other riders in the peloton?

Another interesting wrinkle for which I find no answer in the book is the blood mixup. Apparently, Hamilton accidentally transfused someone else’s blood (on more than one occasion), while having donated only his to his doctor, de Moral. I choose to believe Hamilton when he says he was always under the impression he was transfusing his own blood. 

As Hamilton learned, de Moral was not only helping a handful of cycling stars, but anyone who could pay the bill. This raises two possibilities with regard to the blood mixup.

First is the very easy explanation. De Moral was horribly organized and mixed up blood bags. The explanation is easy, but wouldn’t have riders started dropping dead, or been rushed to hospitals in serious conditions from toxic blood? So while that explanation is plausible, it doesn’t sit right with me.

Second explanation is a bit harder to swallow, but makes a heck of a lot more sense – the mixups were done with purpose in order to ensure cyclists would test positive. This way, blood types can be matched up to avoid toxicity, but still ensure a positive test. After all, Lance knew how doping was administered. He knew that if Hamilton was tested in due course, he would have been safe. However, if Hamilton had someone else’s blood in him without knowing it, he’d be more vulnerable to a positive test, which he ultimately was. The book also makes it clear that de Moral was not the type who would have refused a generous bribe, and Armstrong was not above offering one.

When an athlete messes with his body to gain a competitive advantage, he’s a cheat. When the same athlete messes with others to ensure their failure or exclusion from the sport, he’s an asshole. And no one is a bigger asshole in cycling than Lance. My opinion, of course.

With the exception of the incident from the book (which I choose to accept as the truth)  – Landis telling Hamilton about Armstrong’s call to the UCI – the rest of what I wrote is just a guess, pure speculation. However, the Hamilton incident alone is enough on my end (my feelings don’t have degrees -- I either despise someone or not) to make up my mind about Armstrong. I simply put forth the other theories in an effort to fill holes I feel were left open, and rightly so, as they didn’t concern Hamilton directly.

Of course the 500lb gorilla in the room is the question of what exact role the UCI had in all of this?

Yes, this comes after a long, long hiatus in my blogging “career.” I’m hoping this serves as a revival and will try to post more frequently going forward. Especially now that there appears to be much to write about in the sport of cycling.