The performance drugs and blood-doping techniques that allowed Lance Armstrong to dominate the cycling world have raised questions about the ability of testing programs to root out cheaters and ensure the integrity of competitive sports.
The U.S. athlete, who admitted using drugs and other doping techniques through all of his seven Tour de France wins, was stripped of his cycling titles and banned from competition after an October report by the U.S. Anti-Drug Agency (USADA) detailed evidence of his drug use.
How he managed to conceal his drug use and doping for so long remains a subject of debate among the experts. Michael Perko, a professor of public health at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said science and perhaps the wealth of Armstrong’s team, allowed him to stay a step ahead of the drug testers.
“What they’re doing was very hard to detect,” said Perko. “It takes time to develop the tests to detect the newest ways to dope, especially when you’re using blood doping and other kinds of methods.”
Blood dopers train at high altitudes, which helps the blood develop the ability to carry more oxygen. The highly-oxygenated blood is then withdrawn from the body, frozen, and injected again just before the athletes begin their next event.
“You’re injecting yourself of course with your own blood,” Perko explained. “But it is super, super energized with oxygen.”
Armstrong had said he was tested over 300 times, according to Don Catlin, retired tester and UCLA Professor Emeritus of medical and molecular pharmacology. “Now I am learning that Lance Armstrong, who I undoubtedly tested myself many times, was able to get away with it. What’s wrong with our testing then?”
The failure to catch Armstrong bothers him, Catlin said, because he had “developed testing for the U.S., and it has been applied all over the world for 25 years.”
“I think that someone at the International Cycling Union [ICU] – who is the authority under which the testing took place – somehow or other let Armstrong know they’re coming,” he said.
In an interview with the CBS 60 Minutes program, Director Travis Tygart of the USADA, recalled that in 2001, a Swiss lab official who received a suspicious test result on Armstrong was directed to attend a meeting set up by the ICU with Armstrong and his coach to explain the testing process.
“And I asked him: did you give Lance Armstrong and his coach, Johan Bruyneel, the keys to defeat the EPO tests [i.e., tests that measure the amount of a hormone called Erythropoietin in the blood]? And he nodded his head yes,” Tygart added.
Armstrong has denied this incident ever took place. And Swiss media reports quoted the director of the Lausanne lab, who denied the accusations, as saying it would be “paradoxical for the laboratory that reported the first case of EPO to give the key to circumvent tests.”
The ICU did not respond when contacted for comment.
In 2005, the ICU received a $100,000 donation from Armstrong, which Tygart called “inappropriate.” Asked if that amount was meant to influence the ICU drug testers, Tygart told CBS the donation represented an “inherent conflict of interest.”
Catlin suggested that there was more to ICU’s involvement than what Armstrong was willing to admit to. If that is the case, he said that would point to “corruption inside the sport itself.”
He said that means the whole system needs to be fixed.
Catlin cautioned, however, that not all athletes use performance enhancing drugs or blood doping and some never would. But “we don’t know who they [the users] are,” he added, because testing is supposed to do that.
“If Lance really is honest and if he wants to leave a mark in society, he will come forth and talk about how widespread it [i.e., doping] is because I am here to tell you it is very widespread,” said Perko.
Armstrong was a true champion, Perko said, one who could peddle a bicycle faster and longer than anyone else and probably didn’t need to take drugs.
Tygart, however, called Armstrong “one of the ring leaders of this conspiracy that pulled off this grand heist that defrauded – using tens-of-millions of dollars – defrauded millions of sports fans and his fellow competitors.”
Tygart noted that if Armstrong’s claim that he competed in 2009 and 2010 without using drugs is true, then that would protect him and those who helped him from criminal prosecution due to a five-year statute of limitation on criminal fraud charges.
But if Armstrong last used drugs in 2010, Tygart continued, he “can be charged with a criminal violation for a conspiracy to defraud.”
USADA asked Armstrong in early February to testify under oath about the extent of drug doping in sports, but his lawyers have indicated that he has no interest in addressing the agency.
Now, Armstrong faces several lawsuits over fraud and lies, some by former teammates. And the U.S. Justice Department has joined one of them to recover tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship money.
And Perko said the Armstrong scandal may have already caused long-term damage to all of competitive sports. He said the Armstrong case and others involving high-profile athletes in recent years convey the image that doping is the norm. He cited a recent study he did of 73 million children, which found that over 1.1 million 10-year-olds reported taking performance enhancers to improve their sports performance.
“We’re allowing those kids to think that ‘I need something,’” he said. “And that’s a terrible thing for a kid who’s going to be great to think that they have to have something else other than their own, you know, work ethic.”