5. The Parable of a Cancer Jesus: Lance Armstrong and the Failure of Direct Drug Testing

From: Game Changer

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On June 12, 2012, the United States Anti-­ Doping Agency formally charged Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel, Pedro Celaya, Luis Garcia del Moral, Michele Ferrari, and Pepe Marti with anti-­ doping rule violations. The charges purported that all six men provided medical or management support for the United States Postal Ser­ vice, Discovery Channel, Astana, and RadioShack cycling teams during the years Lance Armstrong was a member. The USADA contended that it possessed evidence proving that from 1996 to 2010, ­ these individuals developed and sustained a doping program to systematically administer the banned substances of erythropoietin , testosterone, ­ human growth hormone, and corticosteroids, as well as perform the illegal practices of transfusing blood, infusing saline, and injecting plasma intravenously.1 The USADA letter was not the first time ­ these men had been embroiled in accusations of doping. Questions about their involvement with illegal performance-­ enhancing substances had circulated around them since the late 1990s.2 Ferrari had been well known for his ability to “prepare”—­ a familiar euphemism for programmatic doping—­ the world’s best cyclists, such as Tony Rominger, Mario Cipollini, and, most importantly , Lance Armstrong, to produce amazing athletic per­ for­ mances.3 Though the USADA charged six men, the focus and reporting centered on Lance Armstrong and once again launched a public sporting debate around him and performance-­enhancing drugs. 5 The Parable of a Cancer Jesus Lance Armstrong and the Failure of Direct Drug Testing Lance Armstrong and the Failure of Direct Drug Testing 155 Armstrong initially responded to the charges with: “I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in per­ for­ mance, passed more than 500 drug tests, and never failed one.”  4 The veracity of ­ these claims was at the center of the ongoing debate. Though many of the USADA’s claims now have been substantiated (Armstrong admitted to years of drug use during a celebrity-­ styled interview with Oprah Winfrey), ­ there are still unresolved questions about how he was able to get away with it for so long, who knew what and when, and, more importantly, why the tests ­ were so in­ effec­ tive. Public discussion and debates on-­and offline about this not-­ so-­ new challenge to Lance Armstrong’s cycling rec­ ord, cancer activism, and cultural heroism are instructive sites to understand the social, cultural, and po­ liti­ cal meanings of direct drug testing within sport. The USADA’s allegation was news to ­ those outside cycling’s inner circles, but it was not particularly shocking. Professional cycling’s public image, in relation to per­ for­ mance enhancement, has been a bit shaky for quite some time. Ever since the July 8, 1998, arrest of Festina soigneur Willy Voet by French customs officers at the Belgium/French border (he was stopped in a vehicle stockpiled with narcotics [cocaine and heroin], EPO, HGH, corticosteroids, amphetamines, and syringes to dispense the drugs), professional cycling has strug­ gled to reform its reputation as nothing more than the quintessence of a drug-­ laden sport.5 This event is an impor­ tant marker for the story of Lance Armstrong and doping ­ because it shed light on the seedy workings of professional cycling and exposed doping on an international scale.6 It moved the public perception of doping away from rogue individuals to a place where drug use was seen as systematic , not just within cycling but in all elite sporting communities. The USADA placed Lance Armstrong on a historical continuum of high-­ profile and celebrated athletes charged with using banned substances.­ Whether Lance Armstrong or any other banned athlete used performance-­ enhancing substances should no longer be a central question evaluated by multiple sport governing bodies, athletes, and publics. In real­ ity, ­ these constituencies should ask deeper and more substantive questions of themselves , interrogating why all forms of testing have been so in­ effec­ tive in curtailing drug use, what institutional functions ­ these tests serve, and how the resulting data is deployed to quell and mollify public concerns about the fairness within sport. Evaluating Bodies 156 The Armstrong Effect Sport governing bodies—­ specifically the USADA, World Anti-­ Doping Agency, International Olympic Committee, and Union Cycliste Internationale—­ spent a ­ great deal of time arguing over which group possessed the jurisdiction to determine if Armstrong and his charged compatriots should receive sanctions. ­ These debates ­ were significant ­ because­ these organ­ izations did not agree on how and if sanctioning Armstrong and the five ­ others charged would...