According to leaked memos seen by Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad Lance Armstrong tested positive four times in the 1999 Tour de France. Sounds dramatic, no?
Only if parts of the media are reporting this as news (here, here or here) it turns out the UCI mentioned all of this last year in a press release. But whilst news of Armstrong’s positive test is stale as a baguette baked months ago, there’s some fresh insight because the memos appear to show the UCI positioning itself to explain past actions. Rather than analysing what went wrong the memos appear to be trying to present excuses for significant lapses in the UCI’s anti-doping procedures.
The same with the leaked information about Armstrong’s 2001 Tour de Suisse EPO tests. Whilst the media (ici) says there was no “cover-up” of a positive test there are still big questions that have yet to be answered.
With the four positive tests the substance in question was a corticosteroid. Back in 1999 corticosteroids were allowed for therapeutic reasons when applied locally, for example a rider could apply a cortisone cream to a saddle sore. But its abuse was banned, for example injecting corticosteroids into muscle tissue to relieve sore legs is doping.
During the 1999 Tour de France we know Armstrong tested positive but this was explained by the use of a saddle sore cream and note from the team doctor was provided to explain this. It still caused a stir at the time but opinions were divided, to give an example on British writer said some French papers were running “a spiteful media campaign” which shows many were willing to give Armstrong the benefit of the doubt.
But the reason for the media division was a rule at the time shows there was no room for consideration. Here’s the rulebook from 1999:
As highlighted in red when the rider takes a test they have to state if they’ve used any substances for legitimate medical use. When Armstrong went to the anti-doping control he didn’t mention anything. As the rules say “if any such substance is found by the laboratory, the test result shall be considered positive and the rider shall be sanctioned.”
Armstrong tested positive four times but the UCI didn’t stop him. The memo – you can read it clearly here – says “As fare [sic] as I am aware only the result of 4 July has become public in the press, not the three other results” which is odd because of the UCI press release we’ve already covered.
The leaked UCI memos show the thinking at the time:
…the UCI anti-doping commission dealt with the case in a reasonable way and that it was convinced in good faith to have acted correctly. It is plausible that it was only a skin cream indeed.
But the idea of reason, interpretation and good faith didn’t come into it, there was no rule saying you can drop sections of the rulebook if they’re inconvenient. The rules were black and white.
Of course we can see the grey. The UCI wanted to wish this away as it’s 1999 and one year ago the Festina affair had almost stopped the Tour de France. Could the sport risk ejecting a rider from the race? All because someone messed up the paperwork? This would take the sport from tragedy to farce.
What’s most interesting with these leaked documents is that the UCI is persisting with the ad lib justification in 2013. We now know the US Postal team was doping with cortisone, Armstrong admitted this in the Oprah Winfrey interview. So the legal advice is still trying to explain what happened in a contextual basis. Rather than saying “sheesh, we were taken for fools” and asking how it can be prevented, the text we’ve seen suggests a range of ex post justifications. This is then perpetuated with the UCI press release out today which cites Article 43 and says it was ok to ignore it, citing “other evidence” and paths that lie well beyond the black and white text of the rule.
There’s plenty of speculation in the leaked memo, for example “Most probably Del Moral gave the skin cream to LA without issuing any medical prescription” but little introspection: the legal advice keeps trying to second-guess the actions of others rather than ask why the UCI was being , to put it kindly, so open in the interpretations of its rules.
The 2001 Tour de Suisse
There were no covered up positive tests in the 2001 Tour of Switzerland. But the leaked results form from the Lausanne lab reveal a high score and we get to see the accompany notes, notably they say there was a “strong suspicion of recombinant erythropoietin”, also known as EPO. In other words it’s official that there was no positive but that there were strong suspicions.
Now if you’re thinking “but we know Armstrong used EPO” then you’re right. But the leak gives us the paper proof that the UCI knew the test was suspicious. Given they had a rider with such suspicious numbers, the question what did they do next? Ideally they should have been watching the suspicious rider much more closely and testing more often. How many more times was Armstrong tested as a result?
As the UCI has stated many times there is no relationship between the testing of Mr Armstrong and the two donations he made to the UCI. As indicated above, as there was no positive test there was no test to conceal and no need for an incentive to attempt to have a test concealed.
That’s from a UCI press release issued in the wake of the USADA report six months ago. Since the UCI brings up incentives, note if there was no positive the UCI was still in a powerful position with the strongly suspicious note. Anyway, did the UCI move to test the rider more? There’s also the unresolveed issue of people connected to the US Postal team visiting the lab to discuss the test data with lab manager Martial Saugy.
After ad lib and ex post, now the Latin idea of cui bono or who gains? In some senses the leaked legal advice presented here reads like a public relations smokescreen rather than an analysis of the sporting law. If the UCI didn’t uphold its own rules in the past, a decade later it seems the efforts to justify this continue. Similarly with the leaked paperwork from 2011 we see proof of the high score and suspicion on paperwork. Who gains from making us think about how the UCI interpreted this?
If you think this is about 1999 and Armstrong, think again. Just because a test is new doesn’t mean old habits should be tolerated and if we can see the obvious reasons why the UCI let Armstrong ride on, it remains a breach of the UCI’s own rules. Who signed off on this sidestep of Article 43 and are they still, perhaps in an honorary role, still at the UCI? And just how does today’s generous adaptation of Article 43 stand up?
The most interesting thing is not what the UCI did in 1999, it’s how it continues to justify it today and resorts to the obfuscation of blaming others and reshaping the rules with the most liberal of interpretations. Apply Oprahvision hindsight and we can see the UCI was bending the rules for all the wrong reasons. It’s still struggling to confront this today as today’s media release shows.
There’s the role of the media too. Back in the day only a few journalists cared for Article 43. Even today dedicated cycling journalists are getting confused by the stories, claiming “news” of four positive tests when they were previously announced shows just how hard it is to keep up, especially as the past slips further and further away. The aborted Independent Commission was going to be so valuable but it wasn’t working, proved expensive and was getting inconvenient for some. Progress towards some kind of “truth and reconciliation” concept seems slow. For now we’re back to leaks, suspicion and confusion. Just like the old days.