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Learning Lessons In The Art Of Lancing

Jan 17, 2013  - Craig Lord


Today as Australia wakes just as Europe heads to bed, TV viewers in the US and on the net worldwide via Oprah Winfrey's media platform, will watch the star American show host look Lance Armstrong in the eye and ask him, we hope, to explain what happened, who was involved and how he can look himself in the mirror each day after having duped millions, cancer patients included, for a decade and more.

Pointless to speculate what the shamed US cyclist will actually say: we will know soon enough. Much will depend on what is asked and what Armstrong and his legal team, with a view to the dangers of self-incrimination, believe to be the limit on public pronouncements at a time when the prospects of jail and actions for the return of monies earned under false pretences must seem very real. 

Marion Jones will be familiar with this scenario, tearful appearance and confession on Oprah in the mix. Sending Jones to jail did not adequately deal with the "crime", of course: she was the athlete who confessed to having had her hand in the cookie jar, while some of those involved in sourcing the ingredients, baking the batch, handling the packaging, sales and distribution walked free in the world - and still do. The same could be said of many at the core of criminality in the GDR, China and elsewhere.

In the dock with Armstrong and others who worked with him today is the anti-doping regime that failed to spot him (plus Marion Jones and others) but is still held up by a range of folk: from politicians hoping to keep their shopfront shiny to those who wish to go easy on cheating and on to those who actually descend into duplicity, as the reason why no finger should ever be pointed "because X never tested positive".

As Alan Abrahamson puts it in this fine article, "There are two plays going on in the matter of Lance Armstrong". One is to the court of public opinion, says the journalist, the other Lance Armstrong's desire to continue to control the agenda: he wants to compete again. Not in cycling but yes, in triathlon, which includes swimming. 

Armstrong has been connected to the Longhorns programme in Texas through his Livestrong charity and the role of breaststroke ace and cancer survivor Eric Shanteau as one of the "envoys" of the charities work and message. Armstrong has swum in US masters swimming events and, we assume, would like to continue to do so. For more on that read former Swimming World editor Phil Whitten. Armstrong has been training with a Masters team in Austin, Texas, this year, alongside at least one Olympian. Apparently, his presence has been "decidedly unwelcome". Whitten notes that US masters is not covered by USADA and therefore a life ban is not applicable in masters. There are FINA rules, however, that could bar him from the world of masters swimming and forbid others to compete alongside him, should the evidence be accepted in the way USADA judged it.

Should Armstrong be allowed to race in swimming masters? My view: no, certainly not. If all that has been claimed is true, clearly, Armstrong is not a fit person to have in the pool, just as a CEO found guilty of defrauding people and taking money on false pretences would not be fit to serve in a boardroom ever again (and would, in law, be denied that chance).

Why is he not fit to be in the pool, on the track etc, alongside other sportsmen and women intending to compete? As Abrahamson puts it so well when staring at the heart of darkness: control.

In the damning USADA report that brought Armstrong down, the cyclist is painted as a man who had “ultimate control” over his own drug use, the doping culture of his team. USADA described it as the most sophisticated and well-run scheme in sports history. That went too far: the GDR doped 10,000 or so athletes, many under age, for the best part of 20 years and got away with it, in swimming not a single positive test ever recorded. 

It was the work of Brigitte Berendonk, a former athlete and her spouse, Professor Werner Franke - with help from sources who took the details of an exercise critical to truth and understanding to the grave with them - that allowed us to know the level of abuse and what truly happened behind the strongest iron-curtain ever seen in world sport. Court cases confirmed it all again in 1998 and 1999 and brought a few to book. Many walked away with a paltry slap on the wrist in terms of penalties, while others were never called at all. The victims carry the consequences to this day.

In much the same way as characters in the GDR controlled the dark world they created, Armstrong controlled his world: there was a code of silence on his cycling team - and those who even hinted at breaking it were ostracised. For details, read this from another colleague of mine, David Walsh, the Irish journalist and chief sports writer for The Sunday Times.

What did for Armstrong was his loss of control: the moment teammates drew a line, shouted "enough" and delivered case details to USADA.

Through his days of duplicity, Armstrong was keen to promote himself as king of his sport and emperor of the conditions that allowed him to be where he was. Those included a culture among sports politicians who, in the face of questions from the likes of David Walsh and his former colleague in journalism on The Sunday Times, former cyclist Paul Kimmage, opted to defend Armstrong and a testing regime that simply was not working when it came to netting those determined never to be caught. 

Kimmage is now with the Irish Independent - take time to click the link (in previous paragraph) and watch the video of  a press conference - and do so in the context of what USADA has since revealed, and the extend of where Armstrong was prepared to go takes your breath away.

Meanwhile, the officials sitting not too far away preferred to see the likes of Kimmage as the black sheep, rather than say "you may have a point - we will leave no stone unturned in our fight against doping".

The record appears to throw up many an unturned stone. What USADA did, the UCI might have been able to do years earlier. Its tardiness could be costly: the federation now faces a future outside the Olympic arena if the votes go that way at the IOC - a body that today confirmed that it has asked Armstrong to return the Olympic bronze medal he won at the Sydney Games in 2000.

The Oprah show today is not the proper forum for genuine and fulsome confession, if there is to be one. What is required from Armstrong, preferably under oath and facing cross-examination in a court of law, are details that may well lead to him being locked out of all competitive sport for eternity.

The UCI's inquiry commission into doping in the sport, which today named the date and venue of its Procedural Hearing (The Law Society, The Law Society's Hall, 113 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1PL, on Tuesday January 22, 10am), yesterday issued a statement on a lack of agreement between the UCI, WADA and USADA on a truth and reconciliation process, with full or partial amnesty offered to those who come and reveal the shade and depth of darkness.

What full amnesty ought to mean in the worst cases of doping abuse is clear: you will never return to the world you tainted as a competitor but you may receive a "Get out of Jail" card if you reveal to the authorities the full forensic extent of knowledge, names, substances, methods and manipulations of the system.

According to the New York Times Armstrong is talking to the US Department of Justice about a the possibilities of turning whistle-blower on the US Postal Service team issues. Who funded it, who was involved, who knew? If those kind of details are not delivered, there should be no amnesty at all. It is the case with drug pushers of the street-scene variety in the US and other countries; it makes sense for prosecutors to work with the face of the crime to get to the mastermind. In Armstrong's case, authorities may need to assess whether the public face was also the mastermind. 

Oprah will be theatre. It will not be End Game. If anything good comes out of his case and the inquiries being conducted in cycling in general, it must be an upgrade in the anti-doping regime. 

Far too often, when aberration in world sport has been pointed out, federations, pundits, partners, so-called "fans" and others, have turned on people like Walsh, Kimmage, Abrahamson and many others (including me - on China, on Smith, on suits and other issues) with denials and accusations of everything from racism to simply being "unfair". Here's the other side of the coin, where one among those who defended Armstrong has now received an apology but admits he feels like the one who is sorry.

It is essential for journalists and others, such as coaches, swimmers and officials with their finger on the pulse of their sport, to note extraordinary events and aberrations in sport - and for anti-doping folk and officialdom to take note and avoid defending what may one day become the indefensible. When cycling bosses saw some world-class acts pass other world-class acts in a way that made the losers look like they'd just been given their first bike for Christmas, the toll of bells rang in deaf ears.

Armstrong's case now drives home the same message delivered by revelations about State Plan 14:25 of the GDR and the China crisis beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall: control, power, personal and financial, is at the heart of cheating. Dr Lothar Kipke, a Nazi in his youth, a Communist of convenience when locked behind the Berlin Wall, was brutal in his administration of steroid injections to 13 and 14 years old girls, it emerged in court evidence in the late 1990s. He remains a FINA silver pin holder. He is a criminal who controlled, manipulated, banged an anti-doping tub in the outside world and returned home to snigger with his accomplices in the Sporting Crime of the 20th Century.  In this century, the victims, many an Olympic and world champion among them, struggle with health problems caused by the kind of abuse he meted out.

The war on doping, the world of anti-doping, needs an upgrade. Lance Armstrong was in a sport and a position in which he took the decisions and will now take the consequences. If we need to know more about the people who helped him, in other sports, such as swimming and its huge community of young people, we need to know a lot more about those in the shadows behind positive tests and aberration when no positive test is ever returned. 

The super troupers that have been trained on Oliver Twist down the years - the urchin and the 15-year-old girl from Karl-Marx Stadt one and the same in being guilty as charged - need to be turned on Fagin and Bill Sikes. There is provision for dealing with the Sikes' of the world but in sport Twist is often turned into a victim twice. 

The hunt for Sikes takes a forensic approach, which means that you need people who start from a position of assuming that bad intention and criminality exists in the world and that position in the realms of anti-doping is just as significant as any presumption of innocence (desirable as that may be). 

Armstrong played out his story, glory to dust, in the full glare of publicity. There are many others who have played out their story in the shadows and never been called to account. Time they were.