By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006
It's a race you can bet Floyd Landis never wanted to win: The descent from the winner's podium in Paris to accused drug user. And yet he has accomplished it with breathtaking speed. With yesterday's news that Landis's backup "B"-sample drug test confirmed there were elevated levels of testosterone after the July 20 stage of the Tour de France, the man who two weeks ago was credited with a historical feat is now being labeled a cheat.
Landis's rollercoaster ride through the Tour attracted admirers worldwide. Among them were those who saw a poignant and triumphant humanity in his struggles through the baking-hot Alps, as well as once-jaded followers of cycling who felt Landis's very inconsistency signaled that he was racing "clean" in a sport that has been tainted by drug use.
Now he's been fired by his team and, pending an appeals process, he risks being stripped of his Tour win and potentially banned from racing for up to four years -- two years from cycling, and two years from competing in the ProTour events, cycling's major races. At that point he'd be at least 34 and nearing retirement age.
For many, the stunned reaction to Landis's crashout stems from admiration for his personal story. How do we reconcile the endearingly modest former Mennonite with the calculating rule-breaker that his urine samples suggest he could be?
"If Floyd Landis goes down, he will become the Ben Johnson of cycling," said three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, speaking by phone earlier this week. "I hope he doesn't become that, but it is that shocking of a revelation."
Before the initial test result came out, it would have sounded crazy to suggest that Landis could be a fraud of the magnitude of the disgraced Canadian sprinter who, at the 1988 Olympics, broke the world record in the 100-meter race on steroids and was disqualified. In interviews over the course of two days in May, Landis appeared to me to be a good-natured and driven athlete who struggled with the sometimes cruel demands of the sport.
Yet given the trouble he's in now, the answers he gave then to questions about doping seem suggestively combative. In the past couple of years eight riders on Phonak, the Swiss-based team Landis led, have been implicated in doping scandals, including the American Olympic medalist Tyler Hamilton. (Landis is now the ninth.) But when asked what he thought about drug abuse in his sport, Landis complained about the frequent testing cyclists had to undergo.
"Sure, the people who are getting caught -- there's a lot of them," he said. "But the ones who are getting caught are the ones who are doing it, because it's practically impossible to get away with it." The random tests cyclists undergo are "a complete intrusion of privacy," he continued. "They've been to my house four times in the last four months. If you ask me, that's excessive. It makes my daughter wonder if I'm on drugs."
"We don't have any bigger problem than any other sport does," he said. "We just make it public immediately because we're too stupid to do anything about it."
"I've been tested 18 times already this year. How many do you need?"
Apparently, for him, just one more.
Even before the drug allegations, Landis demonstrated that he keeps secrets. He concealed a degenerative hip condition from his own team doctor. He kept it hidden from the public until the Tour was underway, when he announced it in uncharacteristically splashy style, with a press conference announcing imminent hip-replacement surgery. This coincided with a New York Times Magazine story ascribing agonizing pain and physical impairment to the otherwise normal-seeming athlete. Suddenly, it looked like Landis was trying to fashion an overcoming-adversity story to match Lance Armstrong's cancer battle.
Landis is a puzzle, clearly. He doesn't fit the stereotype of the raging, egotistical American athlete, nor, it seems, has he lived up to the image of the conscientious, rule-abiding champion that so many had wanted to see.
But if Landis's personal narrative exerted a pull on us before, it's even greater now. His fall from grace brings to mind an ancient story: the prodigal son, the biblical parable of the child who returns home to his father's embrace after squandering his wealth. The lesson is that ambition can be intoxicating and ultimately ruinous -- but that after it has cost you every last shred of your dignity, your solace is to seek forgiveness.
The teenage Landis left his tiny home town in rural Pennsylvania to pursue a decidedly un-Mennonite goal: personal victory on his bike. If his ambition did get the better of him, Landis will have squandered more than just the wealth from winning the Tour. (He was promised $2.5 million from his team, and more would have rolled in from sponsorships, appearances and book deals.) He will also have wasted a decade and a half of lonely, grueling toil as he trained to fulfill his dream.
Since the embarrassment of the initial "A" test result, Landis has expressed something of a homeward pull, mentioning in interviews a week ago his mother's distress at the news, and a tearful phone call between them.
"The sad part is he's part of a system," said LeMond, who saw fellow cyclists die from overuse of the performance-enhancing drug EPO. He faults cycling's "code of silence" for covering up the extent of drug abuse in the sport.
"I hope Floyd will have the courage to be truthful about how this came about, assuming that he's guilty," he said.
That would mean revealing his suppliers and co-conspirators and how he avoided detection if he had passed other tests while doping. Let's face it: Who believes that any of the scores of cyclists previously charged with doping -- including the world's top riders thrown out on the eve of this year's Tour -- stuck needles in himself while all alone in a hotel room? It's a stretch to think that dopers operate in a vacuum, without team doctors and directors being the wiser.
One who did speak out about doping -- with mixed results -- is Matt DeCanio, a former junior national time-trialing champion and pro racer who became an anti-doping crusader. On teams in Europe as well as here, the Virginia native said he witnessed rampant drug use and was pressured to take part. After several years of racing clean, he broke down in 2003 and began taking EPO and testosterone -- a move he calls "the biggest mistake of my career."
What pushed him over the edge was being beaten by riders he suspected of using drugs. "I was like, I just can't win these races and I have the form of my life," DeCanio said.
But after he started doping, DeCanio says, he grew depressed -- partly from disappointment with himself, partly from drug interactions, he suspects. He wrote about his drug use for a training Web site and was banned from racing for a year.
DeCanio had hoped going public would lead others to do the same. "I thought I was going to spark this whole thing where all these other pros would be with me," he said. Instead, he drew hate mail and was accused of being jealous.
DeCanio says cyclists should be encouraged to come forward, rather than punished for it. But complicating efforts to get others to fess up is that not all of those who turn in drug-fueled performances see their actions as wrong.
As more and more cyclists dope and the average racing speed increases, "you either get dropped or you figure out why everyone else isn't getting dropped," said Matthew A. Masucci, assistant professor of sports studies at San Jose State University. "Then it becomes, 'Why would I knowingly give up an advantage?' It's that group mentality: 'Well, they must not think it's wrong.' "
The point is, moral choices occur in a context. Some may find it unthinkable to take illegal, even life-threatening performance-enhancing drugs -- particularly after the early deaths of football's Lyle Alzado, track star Florence Griffith-Joyner and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler -- but we don't have the prospect of millions of dollars and lasting fame dangling before our noses. We're tempted to believe that what is in an athlete's specimen cup reveals what is in his heart. If he's peeing out dope, he must be a bad guy. Yet it may only mean that he's a human being who made a bad mistake.
Now we'll see what Landis will do next. If his Tour crown rests on chemistry rather than on his own unenhanced efforts, continuing to deny the doping will ensure that the cycle of drug use won't stop here.