If the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is to be believed, Lance Armstrong is the greatest criminal mastermind since Bernie Bernie Madoff and his infamous Ponzi scheme.
In their drive to expose Lance Armstrong as a fraud and destroy the mythology surrounding one of the planet’s most widely known athletes, USADA have issued what they refer to as a "reasoned decision"; a catalogue of evidence designed to reveal the cheating and lying that they allege is the foundation of Armstrong’s success.
Apparently, the World Anti-Doping Code requires this when a sanctioned party declines the opportunity to challenge the charges laid against them.
This document—a weighty, 1000-page tome—paints a picture of a puppet master, controlling and influencing a network of people all dedicated to Armstrong’s win-at-all-costs philosophy.
It tells of a man who coerced other riders into using drugs, who used support staff as drug mules and who ruthlessly pursued and attacked anyone who threatened to expose the scheme.
It is a formidable document that presents compelling evidence of wrongdoing and portrays a conspiracy unrivalled in modern professional sport.
Compelling though it may be, it isn’t actually proof of anything.
As former Secretary of State Colin Powell found out the hard way, a seemingly incontrovertible, comprehensive, reasoned and well-argued case for a cause can turn out to be…well…wrong.
The USADA document is the case for the prosecution, nothing more. It is a catalogue of evidence coupled with a credible and engaging narrative. But it's only one side of the story.
It is untested and unchallenged—deliberately—in any court of law or equivalent legal setting. Armstrong’s strategic decision not to arbitrate has ensured that the evidence will remain that way (for now) and allow him to maintain a cloak of plausible deniability.
But was Armstrong’s decision not to proceed with arbitration the brilliant tactical move it at first appeared?
It certainly prevented a circus in which damning evidence would be revealed progressively over many days or weeks. It may also have prevented new evidence coming to light and the sight of once-trusted friends and teammates delivering public condemnation.
But it also prevented Armstrong and his team from tackling the attacks as they arose and breaking down the USADA case piece by piece.
Instead, USADA have delivered a smart bomb to the heart of the Armstrong camp in the form of an argument that, while built from numerous individually weak strands (and some very strong ones), has been woven into an impenetrable web that can inextricably entangle the former champion.
USADA have also provided an apartheid-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which former dopers are invited in to cleanse their conscience while simultaneously taking a kick at their former nemesis.
All in return for a short offseason ban.
This saga has presented an unlikely opportunity for an ever-increasing number of drug cheats to defend themselves using the “Lance made me do it” defence, such as Tyler Hamilton’s statement (reported by CNN):
It was done for the Tour de France so I could be a good teammate for Lance Armstrong
It’s an approach that neatly abrogates any personal responsibility normally expected of professionals in any field. It’s also pretty pathetic.
Where this goes from here will be interesting.
Armstrong can no longer sit back and pretend this isn’t happening. By refusing to be drawn, he is giving USADA a free rein to control the message, and in lieu of any evidence to the contrary, the USADA message will stick.
He can no longer continue to just absorb the damage. It will affect not only his personal brand but also the Livestrong brand—the supposed motivation behind his comeback to the sport. A comeback that ultimately precipitated the USADA action.
The impact on Livestrong will be a barometer for the Armstrong brand. No matter the feelings about the founder, Livestrong has been a positive influence on the world. While these good ends can never justify the means, surely it must count for something when judgement day arrives.
And that day—for cycling at least—may soon be here.
It is now up to the International Cycling Union to either accept the USADA findings and enforce the sanctions or challenge them in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Only then will USADA’s sanctions have any real meaning.
A UCI challenge will be messy and painful, but it may also provide the opportunity to comprehensively address what was a shameful period for the sport of professional cycling; a period where finding a rider who wasn’t tainted by drugs is more difficult than finding those who were.
Maybe then professional cycling can be allowed to move on. And maybe we can finally have the opportunity to find out the indisputable truth about Lance Armstrong.
Whatever that is.
One thing is certain: Despite the hyperbole surrounding the man, Lance Armstrong was not responsible for popularising professional cycling nor will he have irreparably damaged it should the charges against him be proven.
The sport is bigger than that.