The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has branded Lance Armstrong a dope cheat and banned him for life. It has also stripped him of the record seven Tour de France titles he won on the trot from 1999 to 2005. It is a crushing blow to the iconic American cyclist, his legion of fans around the globe and the sport itself. Armstrong represents not just athletic endurance; his is an inspirational story of a man who fought back from testicular cancer in 1996 to excel at arguably the toughest sporting event in the world. The Tour de France, mostly run in France in 21 stages over 23 days over 3200km, had been likened to running a few marathons a week for nearly three weeks at a stretch. Armstrong’s success not only made the Tour hugely popular in the U.S. but also provided the much-needed image boost to a sport that had long been tainted by drug abuse. From 1996 onwards the Tour had often been plagued by doping allegations and disqualifications. Even as Armstrong had evoked admiration and awe among athletes, a question mark always remained about his feats. If anything, those suspicions grew through anecdotal evidence during the past decade, culminating in the denouement that the USADA has decreed, a year after his retirement.
Armstrong has expectedly dismissed the USADA’s charges, saying he had passed hundreds of dope controls in his long career. He has refused to subject himself to an independent hearing process, stating that he could not expect a fair trial in a one-sided “witch hunt”. For a man who epitomises courage and who has survived a Federal investigation, the latest ‘surrender’ is not just uncharacteristic, it virtually amounts to an acceptance of guilt. For many who admire him for the hope he has provided to cancer patients not just by raising millions through his foundation but through his indomitable spirit, he will continue to be a hero. For many others, he might already have become yet another fallen idol like Ben Johnson or Marion Jones. The argument that there is no scientific evidence against him but only the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses including his former team-mates might sound significant. But given the charges framed against him including trafficking in banned substances, the life ban may well stand further scrutiny. What is still contentious is the verdict of the USADA to take away all his seven Tour titles. The International cycling federation, which almost sided with Armstrong in his petition in a U.S. Federal court that was eventually thrown out, is not pleased. The rules stipulate that there can be no sanction for offences committed outside the eight-year time-frame dictated by the statute of limitations in the anti-doping Code. We haven’t heard the last on l’affaire Armstrong.