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June 18, 2004

VeloNews talks to 'L.A. Confidential' author

VeloNews.com | Questioning the accuser - We speak with "LA Confidential" Author David Walsh

VeloNews interviews one of the authors of L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong. Walsh admits again that the case made by the book is "all circumstantial evidence", and suggests that discussions are underway on an English edition of the book:

There's been interest from some American media outlets, but right now I can't reveal too much. I do believe that it will come out in English, though. There is a huge amount of fascinating information in this book.

VeloNews editors explain the seeming inconsistency between Armstrong, who maintains he's never tested positive for anything, and Walsh, who maintains that one of Armstrong's 1999 tests came back positive for steroids. VeloNews explains:

[The UCI and the Tour de France instituted a new test for Corticosteroids. On July 19, 1999 - in the middle of Armstrong's first successful assault on the Tour - the French newspaper Le Monde ran an article citing laboratory sources as saying that samples from several riders - including Armstrong -had shown traces of the banned drug. The levels were below those required to show a positive on the new test, but the results raised suspicions. The UCI later confirmed the result, but noted that the traces were from Armstrong's use of the topical ointment Cemalyt. The governing body also later announced that it had a prescription on record. As a result of both the low levels and the prescription, the test result is not officially considered to be a "positive." - Editor]

Walsh also speculates that Emma O'Reilly may have been moved to come forward by the death of Marco Pantani, explaining that she was friends with the Pirate's soigneur. "I think that she sensed that if she stayed quiet she was contributing to this. She just felt like ‘Why not? Why should I stay quiet?' " Walsh tells Jason Sumner.

Posted by Frank Steele on June 18, 2004 in Doping, Lance Armstrong 2004 | Permalink


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Ugh. I hate this stuff. I believe Lance. I very much WANT to, anyway. But I don't believe the USA Track & Field athletes. What I've read about the circumstantial evidence in their cases (ie, 'non-analytical positives') is pretty damning, and pretty convincing. What are the doping bodies supposed to do, when the detection technology lags so far behind the doping technology? Maintaining a criminal-trial standard of evidence means they'll almost never find any athlete guilty of doping. And it seems sports like cycling and track are full of athletes who dope. In some cases, the circumstantial evidence is more than enough.

On the other hand, what can an innocent athlete do, who's falsely accused? Say, Lance Armstrong for example. You can't prove a negative, so then it becomes a he-said, (s)he-said story. I guess I think the US Anti-Doping Agency has a little more credibility to bring charges against the track athletes than Emma O'Reilly does. I don't know why she'd lie -- but look at the timing of this. Walsh stands to profit so that makes his claims automatically dubious.

On the other hand, again - technology and history demonstrate that never failing a drug test doesn't mean an athlete is clean. I just hate this. I want Lance to win. I also want him to be clean, and he can't prove that he is...

I must say, I didn't like the way he answered a question at the Discovery press conference the other day. They asked him if he or the team have ever used performance-enhancing drugs or techniques and he said somethng like 'We don't ever use performance-enhancing drugs or techniques.' That was a parsing of the question worthy of Bill Clinton.

Sorry for the rambling post. I'm just sorting through my thoughts here.

Posted by: lancefan at Jun 18, 2004 3:06:47 PM

I have always been impressed by Lance's tactfulness. He is well spoken, including in French, and is careful to offer criticism in a respectful, positive light. This is what I really like about Lance.

I think now though, he is facing one of his greatest philosophical questions in the form of a political or P.R. challenge. It's an unfortunate element of modern culture.

Let's be honest. Doping has been and even continues to be very common in sports. Drugs have a long history of use in sports even going back to ancient Greece where strychnine was used as muscle contracting stimulant by athletes. Strychnine was also used in the Tour's of the 1920's. The Tour has a special history of strange drug use based as much on mythology as science. All kinds of bizarre diets, drugs, treatments and substances have been tried to give riders an "edge", and just as often to help them psychologically to compete or even just finish. Smoking, drinking alcohol, all kinds of things thought today to be detrimental have been tried. Drug use and cheating in general in the tour seems to have served as a ritual for some riders to represent their all-out commitment to taking every advantage to win.

I wish Lance could find a way to publicly state that drugs have a long history of use in professional sports, and especially in the tour, furthermore that these are a different class of drugs and treatments used to attempt to enhance stamina and strength, not induce psychological effects or euphoria as in so called recreational drugs, and their appeal and addictiveness is also not comparable. Not all performance enhancing drugs even work, but the psychological effects can be as powerful as the drug. Furthermore, the scientific definition of a drug is something that at times is very blurred, with many perfectly legal, beneficial nutrients and medicines which have long helped ordinary people, banned for use by athletes. Many natural plants are banned for any type of use. A hundred years ago an athlete could eat some baked marijuana if he thought it would help him. Marijuana is a plant, now of course considered a drug, but has also been considered a food medicine. Comfrey probably has many healing benefits both in and out of sports. Coca leaf has benefited South American natives who live at high altitude for centuries. It was even in the original Coca-Cola drink, but today if a Peruvian cyclist grows up chewing coca leaf, and continues using it while competing abroad he could be jailed. All are considered illegal and therefore unethical for use by athletes. On the other hand, few would argue that modern refined foods or refined vitamins are unethical drugs, despite that vitamins are sometimes even injected with a syringe. What if it turns out a large dose of some vitamin helps some athletes overcome a metabolic disorder? Is it a disorder if you have a metabolic limitation? What about amino acids, are they drugs? What about your own adrenalin if extracted an re-injected? Some very new substances in common use in the 1990's were not at first considered drugs, but rather enhancers to help an athlete use what he or she really had, or help them metabolize food or absorb oxygen. The ethics of metabolic "tuning" with these new treatments, many based on sound science, was not as clear as it is today. Some performance drugs are the result of incredible discoveries about human metabolism and they have legitimate uses outside sports, so it's not as if an uninformed person in the 1990's would have considered all performance enhancers to have an evil taint. Standards of what is a drug and what is considered ethical medicine in sports have changed, are sometimes inconsistent, and are not even really based on natural traditions. In one respect, we are puritanical about anything called a drug, which include some perfectly natural plants. Conversely, vitamins, extreme diets, amino acids and some medicines are considered OK.

The result has been a climate of confusion caused by the unclear ethics behind sports medicine combined with the continued pressure on athletes to perform better and better and use every ethical means to do so. Competitive athletes want to go fast and be the strongest, and will use any resource or technique available to do that. If there is a food that gives you an advantage, you absolutely would eat it. So is taking a naturally occurring stimulating tea, or even a toxic, strychnine containing plant unethical? What about surgical changes to one's body? For modern sports, anything beyond simple training and nutrition is considered a gray area or outright unethical, but it does not necessarily mean that sports would not be sports if their use was allowed. Who knows, perhaps someday there will be a sport which specifically allows all drugs and body modifications. Part of the point of athletics, after all, is to change yourself to be as fast and strong as you can be, and today that means very specific and intentional modifications to one's body to achieve that. That's what training does. But we live in a very technological and competitive culture, and in every other part of society, changing yourself involves availing yourself of the latest drugs and surgery as well.

Added to the general cultural confusion regarding the ethical uses of medicine and altering one's body, is the fact that historically, bicycles are the original high tech invention. Bikes have never been about doing things the established way. For all the environmental, health and social benefits claimed for bicycle use, they are the ongoing result of an unabashed enthusiasm for technology. The invention of the bicycle represented the very spirit of the industrial age to the common man, and in no way revered tradition. Quite the contrary, the bicycle was bold and irreverent, a triumph of scientific ingenuity, and it still carries that spirit today. This no doubt explains the strange drugs and cures used by early Tour riders, who thought nothing of experimenting with something new. All of this only adds to the blurred line between what is and is not appropriate health science for cycling.

Drug use peaked in the Tour in the 1980's and 1990's, when probably no one was considered competitive without them, and some new treatments had no legal status or clear ethic associated with their use. Most riders probably used, probably HAD to use, some amount of a personalized cocktail consisting of certain enhancers, hormones, blood thinners, etc., and for some riders- some type of stimulant. It's doubtful most riders used very much, and it's doubtful their use at the time was illegal except for some stimulents. Using them was probably a gray area for most riders, a new, unknown aspect of training, important to use conservatively until more was determined about it by the cycling establishment. Some may have not even known or wanted to know what they were actually taking. Find an ethical, prestigious doctor and beyond that don't ask too many questions, might have been the flawed approach used by some athletes unwilling the face the (probable) reality of widespread use of performance enhancers.

Later, when some performance enhancers were found to be reformulated drugs, very similar to drugs, or simply outright declared drugs without debate, some degree of denial set in among riders and trainers who never intended to use anything questionable. That was a mistake that should have been addressed by riders and the competitive cycling establishment as a whole.

Other trainers and riders simply believed and still believe that some drugs genuinely enhance both riders and the sport, believing overuse was naturally limited through the appearance of performance reducing side effects, disagreed that their use was unethical, and privately flaunted the rules. That was also a mistake since it contributed to the ongoing destructive ethical battles of the last decades. Proponents of athletic drug use should have worked to establish legitimacy, change rules or barring that, create new types of competition.

The cycling establishment has also tried to limit news of drug use, ostensibly to preserve the respectability of the sport. That was a mistake because it took a convenient, conservative position on a touchy subject while never allowing a real debate. Ever since, the rules have been enforced more in a moralistic way than an impartial way.

Because of this ongoing, counter-productive conflict, science and the competitive drive continue to work together to find new ways to enhance athletic ability using ever unknown nutrients, extracts and medicines, staying one step ahead of bans and detection tests. Instead of focusing on the safest and most promising performance drugs and foods, sports drug proponents are forced to hide and deny their work and their interests even when it might have potential benefits in the world of medicine. Similarly, athletes and sports governing bodies are forced to deny the reality of their sport and training, leaving them vulnerable to corruption, scandal, intimidation and conflicts of interest.

Athletes, trainers and sports governing bodies may have to come together to openly admit the nature and history of the problem and to document and debate drugs, nutrition, hormones, therapies, surgeries and metabolic enhancers in a rational, respectful, informed way and determine exactly what is to be allowed (and how much), and what is not, and the ethical implications of competitions which allowed more liberal use of performance drugs, all without resorting to moral arguments.

Posted by: fieldlab at Jul 13, 2004 5:30:08 AM