Lance Armstrong’s record seven Tour de France championships propelled a niche sport to global prominence. And coming in the wake of an odds-defying victory over testicular cancer, Armstrong’s athletic feats transcended the arena of sport to inspire millions facing health crises of their own. Yet on Monday, the head of cycling’s international governing body, a longtime Armstrong defender, said the sport would be better off without him.
The International Cycling Union (UCI) banished Armstrong from ever competing again and formally stripped him of his Tour de France titles, along with every cycling achievement since 2008, endorsing the punishment laid out earlier this week by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
But UCI President Pat McQuaid didn’t stop there. So repulsed by the extent of USADA’s evidence that Armstrong had doped, lied, bullied and threatened his way to glory — even demanding that key teammates on the U.S. Postal Service squad dope as well to further his championship pursuits — McQuaid said Armstrong should be expunged from the sport’s memory.
“Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling, and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling,” McQuaid, a former competitive cyclist himself, said at a news conference in Geneva. “This is a landmark day for cycling.”
Armstrong is left with no opportunity for redemption competitively and no prospect for forgiveness unless and until he joins 11 of his former teammates in disclosing his part in what USADA documented to be “the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”
UCI’s action Monday was an unequivocal affirmation of USADA’s evidence-gathering and conclusions.
In announcing the decision, McQuaid said the testimony of Salt Lake City native David Zabriskie, a U.S. Postal Service teammate of Armstrong’s from 2001 to ’05, left him particularly “sickened.”
Cycling had been Zabriskie’s refuge. It wasn’t just an escape but a wholesome rejection of the world of drug and alcohol addiction that destroyed his father, who died in 2000 as a result. It was a world he hated and one he vowed he’d never be part of.
But as a 23-year-old rising star on Armstrong’s team, Zabriskie was presented with an injectable performance-enhancing blood-booster known as EPO by the team’s director and doctor in 2003 and instructed how to take it for maximum effect.
“I was devastated. I was shocked. I had never used drugs and never intended to,” Zabriskie recounted on his Web site in an essay titled “Truth or Consequences” summarizing the testimony he provided to USADA earlier this year.
Zabriskie’s affidavit — recounting his initial resistance to doping; his fears of not being able to have children and undergoing freakish physical changes; his feeling of being cornered by team management; and his ultimate surrender to the pressure to dope, told that “everyone is doing it” by U.S. Postal’s team director Johann Bruyneel — proved among the more damning narratives in the 1,000-page legal dossier that Monday gave the UCI unequivocal grounds to banish the sport’s once iconic champion.
Armstrong has vehemently denied charges of doping throughout his career, attacking and even suing naysayers while pointing to the fact that he has never failed a drug test. But in August, he announced he was dropping his fight against USADA. Going forward would have meant having to confront the first-hand accounts of his accusers, 11 former teammates among them. And Monday, Armstrong’s lawyer Tim Herman, who had castigated USADA’s Oct. 10 report as “a taxpayer-funded witch hunt,” fell silent. An assistant at his Austin law firm said he would have no comment.
Soon after UCI’s decision Monday, Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France, reiterated his intent to vacate the 1999-2005 championships rather than elevate second-place finishers to the honor, a devastating statement about the pervasiveness of doping during the era Armstrong dominated.
And Armstrong’s lone remaining corporate sponsor of significance, Oakley, announced it was severing its longstanding relationship with the cyclist, joining Nike and Anheuser-Busch, which last week dropped him as a pitchman while continuing to support his Livestrong Foundation, which has raised nearly $500 million for cancer patients since its founding in 1997.
Stripped of every cycling trophy he has hoisted over the last 14 years, Armstrong can count on the news to get worse. The International Olympic Committee is expected to strip him of the bronze medal he won in the time-trial competition at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
And he likely will face a host of lawsuits seeking repayment of his winnings, as well as possible perjury charges, having testified in 2006 that he competed drug-free to collect $7.5 million from a Texas indemnity company as a bonus, with interest, for having won five consecutive Tour de France titles.
The UCI’s decision represented vindication for USADA and its CEO Travis Tygart, who has long been accused of pursuing a vendetta against Armstrong and over-reaching his authority in doing so. In applauding UCI’s ruling, Tygart alluded to tension between his agency and the sport’s international governing body.
“Today, the UCI made the right decision in the Lance Armstrong case,” Tygart said in a statement. “Despite its prior opposition to USADA’s investigation into doping on the U.S. Postal Service cycling team and within the sport, USADA is glad that the UCI finally reversed course in this case and has made the credible decision available to it.”
Tygart went on to say that actions against Armstrong by no means indicated that international cycling was effectively cleaned up. Much work remains, he said, to rid cycling of doping and to rebuild the public’s confidence. And he called for an independent panel, akin to the Truth and Reconciliation panel that was instrumental in helping South Africans move beyond the horrors of Apartheid.
“There are many more details of doping that are hidden, many more doping doctors, and corrupt team directors and the omerta [code of silence] has not yet been fully broken,” Tygart said. “Sanctioning Lance Armstrong and the riders who came forward truthfully should not be seen as penance for an era of pervasive doping. There must be more action to combat the system that took over the sport. It is important to remember that while today is a historic day for clean sport, it does not mean clean sport is guaranteed for tomorrow. Only an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission can fully start cycling on the path toward true reform and provide hope for a complete break from the past.”