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The buzz: Is Landis the fly who can finally sting Armstrong?

May 21, 2010 | 11:32 am
Land-Arms

A colleague from my journalistic past, former newspaperman Dan Barreiro, e-mailed out of the blue yesterday to ask if I would go on his radio show (KFAN in Minneapolis) to talk about the Floyd Landis doping revelations and accusations.

As I did the interview late Thursday afternoon (click here for the audio, in the middle of the segment), a little voice in the back of my head kept repeating Capt. Renault's words from the movie "Casablanca'':  "I'm shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here!'' just before a croupier hands Renault his winnings.

Anyone who has followed professional cycling -- or, in fact, any sport -- the past 15 years would be painfully naive to be shocked by Landis' admission of having been a previously unrepentant doper or by the idea that there could be truth in the doping accusations he has leveled at Lance Armstrong and the other members of a former cycling team, Motorola / U.S. Postal, that already had several riders connected to doping.

It's hardly novel for athletes to proclaim their innocence loudly for several years and then suddenly admit to having lied about doping.  Marion Jones did it.  So did Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte and Mark McGwire and many East German swimmers.

The difference between all of them and Landis is they were compelled into confessions by the feds or Congress or irrefutable evidence uncovered when the Berlin Wall fell or, in McGwire's case, the desire to get back into baseball as a coach. 

Landis did it to clear his conscience, according to Bonnie D. Ford's exclusive interview on espn.com with the defrocked 2006 Tour de France winner.

In the process, he chose to sling mud at other cyclists, including Armstrong, the one name guaranteed to get attention, the only one with name recognition beyond his sport.

The best efforts of amateur psychologists notwithstanding, it remains unclear why Landis chose to implicate Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie and a few others.

Was Landis trying to assuage his suddenly clear conscience and minimize the guilt he admitted by showing he was not alone?  Is he simply an embittered, broken (and reportedly broke) man looking to extract several tons of flesh from the sport that had rewarded and then rejected him?

To Armstrong, the charges leveled by Landis are merely a couple of new flies in the gigantic swarm that has buzzed around him since his first of seven straight Tour de France victories in 1999.  Over those years, Armstrong has either brushed away the pesky buggers, as he did in comments Thursday, or swatted them with threats of legal action.

But the buzzing won't stop, as if this is a special breed of fly attracted to suspected liars.

(Interestingly, Landis claimed in 2007 the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency had offered him a shortened ban for his 2006 Tour de France bust if he would pass on information that could help make a doping case against Armstrong, which Landis apparently refused to do. A few months earlier, Armstrong had said of Landis, "I don't think he did it [doped}.  That's always my position and still is today.'')

So far, what Landis has said in recent e-mails to cycling officials about Armstrong and others falls into the "he-said, she-said'' category.   Whether Landis can provide documented evidence -- or get others to corroborate details of his allegations -- may determine whether this is the fly that will give Armstrong's reputation an incurable infection despite his repeated denials about use of performance-enhancing drugs.

There already is a body of evidence to suggest Armstrong was a doper, some purely intuitive, some by implication, some "he-said, she-said,'' some scientific, even if he never has had an officially positive doping control.  (A positive in 1999 for a banned corticosteroid was dismissed when Armstrong belatedly produced a therapeutic use exemption, reportedly backdated, for the substance.  And not having failed a drug test hardly is proof of righteousness in an era when athletes find undetectable substances and masking agents and other ways to beat testing.)

The intuitive: In an era when cycling was rife with doping, as revealed by test results, police raids, trials and subsequent confessions, Armstrong crushed admitted dopers over and over again in the Tour de France.  Too good to be true or a one-in-a-million talent?

The implication:  U.S. riders Landis, Tyler Hamilton and Frankie Andreu, and Spaniards Roberto Heras and Manuel Beltran, all former Armstrong teammates, either have admitted to or been caught for doping.  Andreu admitted to doing it in 1999, which is significant because of ...


...The scientific: The French newspaper, L'Equipe, reported in 2005 that retroactive testing showed Armstrong had tested positive several times during the 1999 Tour for EPO, which was not officially banned at the time because no accurate test then existed to find it.  No sanctions were applied because the retroactive testing was unofficial -- and perhaps scientifically questionable, although that never was determined.

...And the statement:  Andreu's wife, Betsy, testified that when Armstrong was hospitalized for cancer treatment, she had heard him admit to having done extensive doping.  Armstrong denied ever saying it, and the case that led to the hearing (over whether a Dallas company had to pay a bonus owed Armstrong) was settled without determination of whether Betsy Andreu's testimony was believable.

So why don't people scorn Armstrong the way they do Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or other serial deniers?

Because the good work Armstrong has done for the cancer community, the funds and the consciousness he has raised, the hope he has given to millions with the disease, will mean a lot more in the long run than whether he told the truth about doping.  Many cancer survivors see Armstrong as a beacon to guide them through the darkest moments of their struggle, his triumphs a symbol of possibility, and they may no longer care if there was something wrong about the way that beacon was illuminated.

Even they may not be shocked if it turns out Floyd Landis was telling the truth.

Lance Armstrong gets the cancer pass.  It is the ultimate insect repellent.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Floyd Landis, left, working with his then-U.S. Postal teammate, Lance Armstrong, on the climb of Le Grand-Bornard a few days before Armstrong won his sixth Tour de France in 2004.  Credit: Bernard Papon / Associated Press

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