Leave Lance Armstrong Alone

It’s about time we stopped crucifying the seven-time Tour de France winner. By Buzz Bissinger.

Arnulfo Franco / AP Photo

If government-funded agencies, instead of persecuting big-name athletes for the primary purpose of whipping the media into orgasm this side of Fifty Shades of Gray, spent their time investigating the blue-suited sheikhs of the banking cartel whose only crime was to destroy the economy, the country might actually be on the road to recovery.

It is Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan who should be investigated for the multibillion-dollar shenanigans that recently resulted in losses of at least $2 billion. It is Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs for his firm betting against the investments of clients.

It should not be Lance Armstrong, who at this juncture of his life, after already being investigated backwards and forwards, upside and down, horizontal and vertical, has the right to be left alone with his seven Tour de France victories and legacy intact. Is it that repugnant to label him a hero without the wearisome cycle of celebrity demolition?

The country has a right to at least one, and Armstrong embodies all the attributes, his dominance in the sport of cycling, his successful battle against testicular cancer, the work of his foundation. There are those who hate him. But red state or blue, one per center or no per center, the one attribute Americans seems to have in common these days is hate, so that hardly is indicative of anything.

If Jerry Sandusky had been pursued with the same zealotry as Armstrong, he would have been in prison long ago and some of his victims would have been shielded from breaking down in tragic tears this week on the witness stand. But Sandusky’s only offenses (oops, I forgot to say alleged) are crimes of monstrous sexual perversion against minors. That’s no match for the endless years and millions spent to determine whether Armstrong juiced up his red blood cells in the name of riding a bicycle. If he did dope, you know that everyone else did in a sport where doping is rife: he still had to race, he still had to win. The playing field was even.

The newest charges came Thursday from the United States Anti-Doping Agency, a non-profit organization funded by the federal government and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The charges tantalize, as charges always do as opposed to actual culpability, too often the work of investigators and lawyers in their particular kind of steroid-induced muscle flex.

There is the claim of new evidence that Armstrong increased the oxygen in his blood content in 2009 and 2010 through the use of pre-competition blood transfusions and the injection of a drug called erythropoietin that increases the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

The charges, outlined in a letter from the agency, claim that blood tests taken from Armstrong when he was with the Astana Cycling and Radio Shack teams show evidence of doping during that time frame. Armstrong says he did pass all drug tests in 2009 and 2010. If the charges are upheld, Armstrong could be stripped of his Tour de France victories. He has also been immediately barred from competing in Ironman triathlons.

But the letter also shows the stench of a devil’s trial against Armstrong, the stake already constructed and the pyre about to be lit. There were five others named in the letter, three of them doctors and the other two a team trainer and a team manager. But none of the other cyclists who rode with Armstrong over the past 20 years have been named, and at least ten are said to be alleged eyewitnesses.

If Armstrong was in fact blood doping, you can be sure that so were his teammates. Why no charges? It is clear they have cooperated with the Anti-Doping Agency investigation and are getting some type of immunity for it, just as it is also clear that the agency is clearly miffed that Armstrong did not cooperate, reluctant to lay his reputation and Tour de France victories at its mercy and the vindictiveness of former teammates who clearly hate him.

“With the exception of Mr. Armstrong, every other rider contacted by USADA regarding doping in cycling agreed to meet with USADA and to truthfully and fully describe their involvement in doping and all doping by others of which they were aware,” the USADA letter stated. Armstrong was “given the opportunity to meet with USADA to fully and truthfully disclose all knowledge of anti-doping rule violations committed in the sport of cycling. However, Mr. Armstrong declined USADA’s offer.”

Sure sounds like retribution to me for not coming to the mountain and offer mea culpa.

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Armstrong may have declined because he has taken and passed more than 500 blood tests during his career and never flunked one, according to his lawyer Robert Luskin. He may have declined because it appears obvious that the USADA, to tack Armstrong to the trophy wall, has given everybody else who rode with him a free pass. He may have declined because of the suspect allegations of two of his former teammates, Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, in a previous investigation by federal prosecutors that led nowhere, perhaps because both men had lied about their drug use in the past. Hamilton first made his allegations against Armstrong public on 60 Minutes in the late spring of 2011, a telltale sign that he was trying to sell a sexy and salacious story for his own self-interest. Is that the sewage of a book deal you smelled? The pipes were fissuring.

And why is the USADA acting now? Could it be that with the Summer Olympic games starting next month in London, the acronymically challenged agency needs to justify itself.

If it all sounds like stale déjà vu, that's because it is stale déjà vu.

Federal prosecutors spent two years investigating Armstrong. Through well-placed leaks, the feds did a nice job of acting as if they had a good case against Armstrong, finding its plumpest pigeon in the increasingly bloated and careless New York Times. The paper suggested to readers that the feds would have an indictment against Armstrong by January of 2011. It ran three front-page stories about the investigation, all of which pointed to Armstrong’s guilt regardless of the denials. Then the investigation was dropped as if to say “never mind” with so much damage already done.

“I think what one sees over and over is the phenomenon of the story that is too good not to be true,” Luskin told the Washington Post in a story that questioned the media’s rapacious coverage. “The [accusations] are so juicy that reporters become unwilling to exercise independent judgment. They become seduced by their sources and take too much at face value. No one stops and says, ‘That doesn’t sound right to me.’”

Earlier this week, the justice department decided not to retry former Senator sleaze John Edwards after the jury could not reach a verdict in his trial on charges of campaign corruption. Now contrast that with the action taken by federal prosecutors in the case of former San Francisco Giant and home run king Barry Bonds.

In November of 2007, Bonds was indicted on five felony counts of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly false claims before a grand jury that he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs. In May of 2008, a superseding indictment was issued upping the number of counts to fifteen. Later that year there was another superseding indictment, this time with ten charges.

After a judge threw out three urine tests as evidence, federal prosecutors appealed and only let go after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision. This was followed by a third superseding indictment in which the number of counts was reduced to five. This was followed by a prosecution motion during trial that agreed to by the presiding judge reducing the number of counts to four. This was followed, three and half years after the original indictment and millions of dollars of federal money spent, of a conviction of Bonds on precisely one count of obstruction of justice.

Now it’s the same with Lance Armstrong, the endless investigation of something that has become trivial, expensive, and of utterly no importance. Did he dope? Did he not dope? Don’t we have more important matters in this country to worry about?

Apparently not.

So have no fear blue-suited sheikhs of the banking cartel.

The possibility of your criminal malfeasance is safe.

There’s always another big-name athlete around the corner believed to be picking his nose for ill-gotten gain and profit.