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You are in : Corporate Governance and Ethics >
Can anything good come of the greatest fraud in the history of sport?
Thu, 31 Jan 2013 10:48
Greg LeMond - Three time winner of the Tour de France – caused outrage with his comment in 2001, “if Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sport. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”
For the millions of Lance Armstrong supporters the Oprah Winfrey interview no doubt came as a shock. Armstrong - who rose to the very pinnacle of the sports world and became an inspiration to cancer sufferers – always denied that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. We now know that he lied. But can we learn anything from the Armstrong story?
It is unlikely that even LeMond suspected the scale of the fraud that would be revealed when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released its reasoned decision on 10 October 2012 but his comments were prescient.
USADA found overwhelming evidence that Armstrong’s achievements and those of the US Postal cycling team he led were the result of a massive team-doping scheme. Armstrong enjoyed the support of a small army of enablers, including doping doctors, drug smugglers, and others in and outside the sport of cycling. He had ultimate control over his own drug use, which was extensive, but also the doping culture of his team. It is the nature and effect of this culture that should be a lesson to us all.
Keeping a fraud of the magnitude described by USADA under wraps was not easy. The drug culture that had already developed and the omerta – the code of silence – maintained by cyclists played its part and when there were leaks Armstrong responded with aggression. Cyclists who spoke out against doping were ostracised and whistle-blowers that fingered Armstrong depicted as disgruntled or disturbed failures.
A misguided sense of loyalty or commitment to the omerta meant that whistle- blowers were offered no support from cyclists that might hitherto have been their friends. It took a very brave cyclist to speak out and even then life in cycling would pretty quickly become unbearable for such an individual.
Even a retired icon like LeMond was vulnerable as he learned when his commercial partners turned their back on him after his comment in 2001. If that sort of pressure was not enough Armstrong was prepared to sue those who told the truth well knowing he was relying on a lie to support his suit.
The financial rewards on offer to champion athletes today are enormous. With success comes fame and - as Armstrong has so ably demonstrated – wealth and power. Armstrong was prepared to take almost any risk to secure these rewards and then protect them.
Anti doping efforts must have to an environment in which sport is very big business if it is to have any prospect of success. When it comes to sanctions these must at very least have or cause adverse consequences sufficiently serious to act as a counterweight to the incentives for cheating. And it cannot only be athletes who are at risk of such consequences.
Armstrong’s enablers included medical practitioners willing to abuse their training and expertize, members of team management and support staff, teammates who bowed to pressure to cheat or sought the same rewards as he did, and a cycling governing body that did little to intervene in a meaningful way.
The end result was a culture that not only encouraged drug cheating but also protected those who cheated most – Armstrong being the best example. Armstrong and his team were not the only dopers but as the most organized and successful they were the most protected. Despite ever increasing speeds on the Tour, revelations of the truth by extremely brave cyclists and support staff, the work of investigative journalists such as Walsh, and even drug related illness and death, no real effort was made by cycling to deal with the issue.
Looking back it is this long term failure of cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) that is most concerning. When the truth, or snippets of it, did emerge this was almost always the result of the work of criminal investigators rather than UCI enquiries.
Once the dust had settled and the investigators had left the UCI did very little to follow up on what had had been revealed. Armstrong tested positive for a banned substance in 1999 Tour – his first Tour victory – the Tour labelled as a “renewal” after the scandal of the previous year when support vehicles were found by police to be filled with drugs and doping equipment – but the UCI accepted a backdated prescription as sufficient explanation without any investigation whatever. And so it went.
The evidence gathered and published by, inter alia, Walsh and other investigative journalists such as Pierre Ballester called for a full investigation at the very least. But that did not happen. Little wonder that all manner of allegations of collusion on the part of certain UCI officials and of a wholly unhealthy relationship between officials and Armstrong abound. Unless there is an independent investigation it is unlikely that faith in the UCI will be restored in the foreseeable future. At very least, as Travis Tygart, the Chief Executive Officer of USADA said of UCI “The truth is, Lance Armstrong, on their watch pulled off the greatest heist sport has ever seen.”
The USADA is not the governing body of cycling – or any sport – as many believe. The UCI is responsible for international cycling and had jurisdiction and the necessary powers to conduct a full investigation at any time had it had the desire to do so. It did nothing of the sort. When USADA took up the fight in 2011 and 2012 the UCI spent its time challenging process and trying to deflect attention.
It was only when it became plain that the USADA reasoned decision could not reasonably be attacked – and that Armstrong did not intend doing so – that the UCI went with the flow and endorsed the decision and the sanctions handed down by USADA. The fight against doping is organized internationally under the World Anti- Doping Association (WADA). USADA is the doping authority affiliated to WADA having responsibility for doping matters in that country. The South African Institute for Drug Free Sport in South Africa (SAIDS) is the local equivalent of USADA. Had USADA not intervened there is every likelihood that the truth would not have emerged.
Armstrong wielded so much power in cycling, and had enablers of such ability and influence, as to be able to dictate outcomes in most circumstances where processes internal to cycling were followed. A very important – and valuable - lesson is that effective independent oversight – like that USADA provided in the Armstrong case and SAIDS provides in South Africa – is essential if the fight against drug cheating is to be a real one.
Much has already been written of the different consequences Armstrong may have to contend with now that it is clear he doped and lied. USADA - and SAIDS in South Africa - hand down sanctions that are limited in their effect to sport. Sanctions can include the stripping of titles and awards, suspensions and bans, but while these impact severely on top flight athlete but they are not criminal sanctions nor is their effect as serious for those who do not complete or have retired. Enablers – such as medical practitioners for example – will not necessarily be impacted to the same extent.
The effects, for a high profile athlete like Armstrong, go beyond the immediate sanction of course. Armstrong had already lost the support of his sponsors as a result of the USADA decision before Oprah Winfrey interviewed him. The manner in which he defended himself against charges of cheating over the years has created further risks of course.
Armstrong lied under oath in Texas litigation instituted against SCA Promotions - the company that guaranteed certain of his bonuses for Tour wins – when SCA refused to pay on the basis that Armstrong cheated his way to successive Tour victories. He also sued the Sunday Times – Walsh was the chief sports writer for the Times – and those who spoke out after a report dealing with the book released by Walsh and Ballester in France in 2004 - L.A. Confidentiel - and secured a settlement when maintaining his denial that he had ever taken any performance enhancing drugs.
While different legal rules –a Texas statute of limitations is said to preclude Armstrong from being prosecuted for perjury in relation to the SCA case – apply in different jurisdictions it is interesting to compare Armstrong’s position to that of British life peer and author Jeffrey Archer. In 1999 Archer was jailed when it became clear that his successful 1987 libel case against the Daily Star had been founded on perjured evidence. There is very little to choose between Amstrong’s attitude to court process and conduct of proceedings and that of Archer.
Armstrong will in all likelihood also face litigation from at least some of his erstwhile sponsors, who paid millions to link their brands with the greatest comeback in history rather than the greatest fraud, and his erstwhile team mate Floyd Landis has instituted whistle blower proceedings aimed at forcing Armstrong and the owners of his cycling team repay the U.S Postal Service any sponsorship money shown to have been spent on organized doping.
There are also reports of class action claims against the publishers of his ‘autobiographies’ on the basis that these were fictional and not the inspirational life stories they were sold as. Armstrong will no doubt be joined in any such proceedings and just the cost of dealing with all these actions will be enormous. Massive financial imperatives are available for winners in the world of sport. It is essential that where winners are revealed as cheats the risks should be as great. If that is the case here that will also be a valuable message to prospective drug cheats.
But the most important lesson to be learned should be that the focus should not be limited to Armstrong. Rather than ending the culture that made the greatest fraud in sport possible that would ensure its survival. It was important that Armstrong be investigated with vigour and be held to account but so too must all the enablers in the sport of cycling and outside it.
Where possible criminal proceedings should be instituted – there have been a number of prosecutions in Europe already – and professional bodies – such as the organized medical profession – should also play a role where they can. Athletes themselves will in appropriate cases have claims against enablers and every such claim has the potential to dampen the enthusiasm of the enablers and to strengthen the resolve of those who oppose doping.
We must also reflect on all sport, at every level in an era when sport has become very big business with all that entails. It is not just at the highest levels that the pressures and incentives have changed. Rumours of doping at school level have been rife for some time in South Africa and elsewhere. All doping is unacceptable of course and at school level the health risk alone should ensure that it does not occur.
If organized doping – such as occurred in the Tour – takes root at schools level we face problems of an entirely different character to that posed by isolated instances of doping. Many of the cyclists who have now disclosed the extent of their doping explained their conduct and preparedness to lie on the basis that they did not believe that they were doing anything wrong. Doping was so prevalent it became normal. If such a culture were to take root at schools level it would almost certainly spread very quickly and in time ensure that only those willing to dope could compete. It would become the norm with all that entails.
The most valuable lesson the Armstrong story teaches us is that the truth will emerge in the end. And when it does the consequences for those who have cheated will be serious, and will not be limited to the athletes who are caught out but to their enablers. And when it comes to enabling young people to dope at school level criminal sanctions will almost certainly be appropriate.
Performance enhancing drugs have no place anywhere least of all at schools. If that lesson is taken to heart something of real value will certainly have been learned. That and the fact that the efforts of anti-doping bodies such as SAIDS are essential in the fight against doping in sport and should be properly funded and supported.
Michael Murphy – Director: ENS employment department
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