Some people pay attention to cycling. Others pay attention to cycling only when the most successful American cyclist of all time is banned from the sport and stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. If you're in that second group, Lance Armstrong's ban has likely left you with some questions. Here are some answers.
What did Lance Armstrong test positive for?
Technically, nothing. Rather than a specific drug being found in his system, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced in June that blood samples collected from Armstrong in 2009 and 2010 were "fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions." EPO is a hormone involved in red blood cell production and increases the body's oxygen delivery. For this reason, it's usually used in endurance sports like cycling, distance running, and boxing.
Armstrong was tested regularly for more than a decade. Why did this only show up in tests of the last few years?
It's not a simple yes-no test—EPO can't be detected directly. Instead, multiple blood samples are taken and compared to baseline readings to determine if the rider is using something artificial. Even this isn't as easy at it sounds: As Dr. Michael Ashenden, a former independent member of an International Cycling Union (UCI) panel, explains:
Athletes get tested multiple times per year. Of course there is natural biological variation over that time, which means that the results bounce up and down a little bit rather than being the same value day in, day out. The size of those variations is compared against the natural biological fluctuations that we expect to see, and only if the variations are unusually large is the profile flagged as being suspicious.
Testing is still in its infancy. A test for EPO didn't exist until 2000 and wasn't successfully used to catch doping until the 2002 Olympics. The accuracy of the procedure is getting better, but still has flaws. A 2008 study sent identical blood samples to two World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) labs, and the labs came back with completely different results. In one case, Lab A reported that all eight samples were positive for EPO doping, while Lab B found that all eight were negative.
Why didn't the UCI notice any strange test results?
There are two theories. One is that Armstrong's results during his cycling career were never egregious enough to be certain. Dr. Ashenden explains that suspicious results are given second and third opinions, and it's possible that Armstrong's samples were flagged, but never unanimously decried as evidence of doping by the UCI's various panels.
The other is more sinister. According to USADA, witnesses including Floyd Landis said that a positive test in the 2001 Tour de Suisse was covered up, possibly with the help of the UCI. Landis suggested a quid pro quo, as Armstrong made a $25,000 donation to the UCI in 2002, and a $100,000 donation in 2005.
The UCI admitted to the donation, but strongly denied a cover-up and last year threatened a defamation suit against Landis.
Did USADA have anything besides drug test results to pin Armstrong down?
The testimony of "at least 10" witnesses, including many former teammates. A two-year federal investigation into Armstrong was abandoned in February, but all the information gathered was handed over to USADA. It's not clear who gathered the witness testimony, but it forms the bulk of USADA's charges.
Numerous witnesses provided evidence to USADA based on personal knowledge acquired, either through direct observation of doping activity by Armstrong, or through Armstrong's admissions of doping to them that Armstrong used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone during the period from before 1998 through 2005, and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and hGH through 1996. Witnesses also provided evidence that Lance Armstrong gave to them, encouraged them to use and administered doping products or methods, including EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone during the period from 1999 through 2005.
Armstrong is just one of six members of the US Postal Service Team charged by USADA with operating a "doping conspiracy," a group that includes three doctors, a trainer and a coach.
Is the witness testimony reliable?
Apparently not enough for federal investigators to bring charges, but USADA doesn't have the same burden of proof. Armstrong has attacked the credibility of the witnesses, mostly former teammates, pointing out that many of them are confessed drug cheats.
A Dutch newspaper reported last month that five of the witnesses gave testimony against Armstrong in exchange for more lenient doping suspensions for themselves. Those riders have denied making any deals with USADA.
How has Armstrong fought the charges against him, and why did he give up?
Armstrong initially filed a strange, rambling lawsuit against USADA, claiming the case was a personal vendetta and seeking a restraining order. That suit was thrown out by a judge, visibly angry at having his time wasted.
Since USADA is government-funded, Armstrong sought help from his friend, Senator John McCain. Unmoved, McCain promptly released a statement giving his full support to USADA investigation and charges.
These tactics only served to delay Armstrong's deadline for responding to the charges. He had until 2 a.m. last night to either accept the sanctions, or formally challenge them in arbitration. Four hours before the deadline, Armstrong announced he would not challenge USADA's ruling, although he did not admit guilt. That leaves his options open to challenge the allegations in other forums, including civil cases.
Why does USADA get to strip Armstrong of Tour de France results?
USADA and the UCI have long battled over who has the jurisdiction to investigate, charge, and sanction Armstrong. Both organizations are signatories to the World Anti-Doping Code, which since 2004 has governed and standardized testing and punishment. The code dictates that "in cases where no hearing occurs" (like this one), USADA must submit a "reasoned decision explaining the action taken."
USADA head Travis Tygart said the UCI is "bound to recognise our decision and impose it," and that "they have no choice but to strip the titles under the code."
The UCI is holding off, for now. From a statement released this morning:
The UCI recognizes that USADA is reported as saying that it will strip Mr. Armstrong of all results from 1998 onwards in addition to imposing a lifetime ban from participating in any sport which recognizes the World Anti-Doping Code.
As USADA has claimed jurisdiction in the case the UCI expects that it will issue a reasoned decision in accordance with Article 8.3 of the Code.
Until such time as USADA delivers this decision the UCI has no further comment to make."
The UCI insists it maintains the sole right to strip Armstrong of his titles, but it seems unlikely the group will do anything but accept USADA's "recommendations." That's how UCI handled the Floyd Landis case, the closest analogue to this one.