Another Update on Lance Armstrong

Sports Illustrated and the Wall Street Journal as well as a whole host of newspapers have been running multiple articles about Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace.

One week after the United States Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) released their bombshell report containing detailed evidence that Armstrong had not only taken performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), but had instigated their use and intimidated his teammates to do so as well, Armstrong was dumped by several sponsors. Nike, Anheuser-Busch, RadioShack, and other sponsors severed their relationship with Armstrong, and Armstrong also stepped down as chairman of his beloved cancer-fighting charity, Livestrong.

The clothing and footwear company, Nike issued a rather harsh statement, citing what they company described as insurmountable evidence that Armstrong had participated in doping and had misled Nike for over a decade. Nike did say that they would continue to support Livestrong and carry Livestrong-branded products.

Armstrong began his relationship with Nike in 1996, and Nike stood by Armstrong even after allegations emerged that he had doped. Since 2000, Nike pushed Armstrong to the forefront as a clean, ethical athlete who trained and raced hard without the benefits of doping. In 2000, Nike aired commercials showing Armstrong taking a blood test in front of reporters. The commercial then included this refutation of doping allegations: “What am I on? I’m on my bike, six hours a day, busting my ass.” It was as public an asseveration as Armstrong could make that he was racing clean and not doping.

Nike has a reputation for standing by its endorsements no matter what. For example, even after the issuance of the USADA report, Nike released a statement that it was standing by Armstrong. Slate Olsen, the general manager of cycling club Rapha North America and a former Nike employee who worked on the Livestrong brand in the 2000s said this about Nike: “We used to joke that they were the untouchables—[Michael] Jordan, Tiger [Woods] and Lance—the upper echelon of Nike. After the bracelets launched around 2004 there was even talk about trying to move the corporate color from Nike orange to Livestrong Yellow.”

Examples of Nike’s corporate fidelity are seen in the case of golfer Tiger Woods and basketball superstar Kobe Bryant. A torrid sex scandal led other companies to dump Tiger Woods as an endorser in 2009, and Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault in 2003; even though the charges were eventually dropped. Nike stood by both athletes despite their moral shortcomings.  Nike, however, did dump football star Michael Vick, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to dog-fighting charges and served almost two years in prison. After his sentence, however, Nike re-signed him as an endorser last year, saying, “Michael acknowledges his past mistakes. We do not condone those actions, but we support the positive changes he has made to better himself off the field.”  Nike also did not renew its deal with baseball player Jason Giambi after he admitted to steroid use.

Davie-Brown Entertainment is a member of the Omnicom Group Inc that tracks the status of celebrities as marketing symbols.  Davie-Brown Entertainment uses on-line consumer polls to determine the appeal of celebrities.  Apparently, Armstrong was as sure an investment bet as one could make.  In June 2008, Mr. Armstrong was ranked as the 60th most effective product spokesperson.  He was on par with such advertising luminaries as swimmer Michael Phelps and actor Brad Pitt.  However, as of September 2012, Armstrong ranked 1,410th, which puts him alongside rapper Nicki Minaj and actor Jeff Goldblum.

How did Armstrong beat the drugs tests?  According to former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton in his book “The Secret Race,” It took drug-testing authorities several years and millions of dollars to develop a test to detect EPO (erythropoietin, a hormone that increases the quantity of red blood cells in circulation and therefore, increases aerobic capacity) . . . It took Ferrari about five minutes to figure out how to evade it.”

Dr. Michel Ferrari, an Italian physician, was found guilty of “sporting fraud” and “illegally acting as a pharmacy,” but his convictions were overturned on a technicality.  He remains banned from working with cyclists.  In 2005, Armstrong testified in a US court case that there had been no professional contact between himself and Ferrari since his public break with Ferrari was announced on October 1, 2004.  However, USADA reported that Armstrong paid Ferrari some $210,000 after he had publicly claimed to have severed all ties with Ferrari.  In fact, USADA spoke with 15 professional cyclists, six of whom were former Armstrong teammates, who individually confirmed that Ferrari supervised Armstrong’s doping program.  Financial records obtained by USADA show that Armstrong paid Ferrari over $1 million between 1999 and 2006, which is the time during which Armstrong won his Tour de France titles.  In his 2003 memoir, “Every Second Counts,” Armstrong also wrote, “Michele Ferrari…was a friend and I went to him for occasional advice on training…He wasn’t one of my major advisers.”  The evidence amassed by the USADA investigation shows that this is not true.

Ferrari taught US Postal Service riders how to administer EPO intravenously rather than subcutaneously.  The intravenous form would be less easily detected, since it is degraded as soon as it enters the bloodstream, whereas, subcutaneous EPO is absorbed slowly and broken down slowly.  EPO becomes undetectable within 19 hours after intravenous administration as opposed to 43 hours after a subcutaneous injection.  Another trick to prevent detection of EPO use was to infuse saline into the bloodstream to bring down the hematocrit (i.e., how much space in the blood is occupied by red blood cells).  Since EPO boosts the hematocrit, abnormally high hematocrits are viewed as indications of EPO doping.  Saline infusions artificially lowered the hematocrits of the riders and prevented them from getting pinched for EPO use.  Team physician Pedro Celaya used this technique on Armstrong at the 1998 world championships, according to an affidavit by rider Jonathan Vaughters.

Ferrari also showed Armstrong and his riders how to microdose to ensure that any trace of the drug would disappear quickly.  Testosterone, for example, could be microdosed with a patch or by taking it under the tongue.  Former Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis recalls Armstrong giving him testosterone patches.  Another trick was to take the dose of testosterone at night so that the drug would perform its magic but would be metabolically degraded by the body by the next morning.

In a comment to the Associated Press, Armstrong said, “People are smart.  They will say: ‘Has Lance Armstrong ever tested positive? No.'”  This one assertion in Armstrong’s defense, is not strictly true.  A June 4 1999 letter from UCLA’s Olympic Analytical Laboratory to USA Cycling documents eight of Armstrong’s testosterone tests from 1991 to 1998 (there was a gap in 1997 when he being treated for cancer).  These tests examine the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone.  Epitestosterone is an inactive epimer of testosterone that results from the biosynthesis of testosterone.  In the vast majority of people, the testosterone to epitestosterone ratio is ~1:1.  A ratio that is greater than one can occur naturally, but a T/E ratio greater far greater than 1 is evidence of testosterone doping.  According to USADA, a ratio of over 4 is evidence of doping, and a sample taken from Armstrong on June 23, 1993 had a T/E ratio of 9.  Three of these samples are at 6, and six of the eight samples are over 4.  The lab director Don Catlin said that two of the tests could not be confirmed, there is no evidence that the other high samples were ever retested.

Armstrong also tested positive for corticosteroids in 1999, when he won the Tour for the first time.  According to Emma O’Reilly, a soigneuse (masseuse) for the US Postal Team and who is not an athlete and has no reason to lie or be jealous of Armstrong’s success, Armstrong secured a backdated prescription for therapeutic steroid cream for saddle sores from the team physician  Dr. Luis Garciá de Moral.  O’Reilly also testified that she had disposed of Armstrong’s used needles, covered his needle marks with makeup, and retrieved pills for his in Spain when Armstrong was in France.  Armstrong sued O’Reilly for libel and a settlement was reached, but O’Reilly paid no money.  Here is a witness with a lot to lose and nothing to gain but grief for telling the truth.

There was another time, when Armstrong tested positive for EPO in 2004, but he told teammate Tyler Hamilton “No worries dude.  It’s all taken care of.”  According to Floyd Landis, Armstrong had told him that he and his team manager Johan Bruyneel made a deal with the International Cycling Union (UCI) to conceal the positive test for a $125,000 donation from Armstrong.  While UCI denies this, testimonies from Armstrong confidants show that this is exactly what happened.

There is nothing about this story that sits well.  The sport of professional cycling has been besmirched, the careers for several professional athletes have been adversely affected, and Armstrong’s life has certainly been ruined.  Armstrong raced at a time when doping was rampant in cycling, and one could make the argument, that he was simply one of many who dopes, but still managed to win.  There is some merit to this argument, but we must remember that not everyone responds to PEDs the same.  Stephen Swart, Armstrong’s Motorola teammate during the 1995 Tour de France told Sports Illustrated that he took EPO at Armstrong’s urging but that “straightaway, it actually made me perform worse.”  Biological differences between people mean that some will respond much better to PEDs than others.  Therefore, it will give some athletes a huge advantage, and others none at all and PEDs will even make some perform worse.  The fact remains that the best way to do sports is or all athletes to race or play cleanly, but making sure that this ideal is achieved is not easy and will continue to be a challenge for years to come.