Since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced yesterday that it intended to bring doping and conspiracy charges against Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion has given only a couple of terse statements. "These charges are baseless, motivated by spite and paid for by promises of anonymity and immunity," he said in one. On Twitter, he tagged the charges "#unconstitutional."
But two months ago, Armstrong talked at length about the long-festering questions in a Men's Journal cover story. A two-year Justice Department doping investigation of him had collapsed in February. As he sat in a boat bobbing in Kailua Bay, Hawaii, looking forward to his new career as a world-class triathlete, he told MJ writer Josh Eells he was virtually untouchable. "It's all tailwind now," he said. "Other than a health issue or something with [my] kids, nothing will rattle me ever again."
He was also blissfully untroubled by the ongoing USADA investigation. "If there are other things that arise, I'm not contesting anything," he said. "Case closed." When Eells asked if he was worried that the USADA could sanction him, putting one of his record seven Tour de France titles in jeopardy, he said no. "I wouldn't be unhappy." Armstrong had won his Tours from 1999-2005, and there was a statute of limitations on how far back the USADA could sanction him for doping. Whatever happened, he'd still have six titles left.
Not so. And it could be even worse than that.
The USADA has brought charges against Armstrong for actions dating all the way back to 1996, far beyond the eight-year statute of limitations. If the USADA determined that Armstrong had doped this far back, he could be stripped of not just one Tour title but all of them. How was this possible? How could the USADA punish Armstrong for things that he might have occurred outside the statute of limitation period?
The USADA contends that limitations of the statute period are nullified in the event of "fraudulent concealment" or "false statements." In other words, if Armstrong had covered anything up. The USADA, in a letter to Armstrong detailing the charges against him, wrote that Armstrong, and his former racing team colleagues, were part of a conspiracy that included possession, trafficking, aiding, abetting, and covering up the use of banned substances. It has also accused him of using "fear, intimidation and coercion to attempt to enforce a code of silence (or omerta) by team members and employees to prevent detection...."
Armstrong, as always, maintains his innocence, and says the conspiracy is aimed at him. The USADA gave him a week to respond to their charges in person. He declined because, as his attorney, Robert Luskin, told The New York Times, he didn't think they'd accept anything short of a confession.
Since we ran our cover story, Armstrong had proved doubters wrong by winning a half Ironman in Hawaii two weeks ago. (He was the fastest cyclist and runner on the 70.3-mile course, and the third-fastest swimmer.) He had been in the south of France, gearing up for his first full Ironman, in Nice on June 24, when the bad news arrived. But the World Triathlon Organization – the group that runs the Ironman triathlons for which Armstrong is training – bars athletes under USADA investigation from its events. This means that Armstrong won't be able to compete in France – or in the premiere Ironman World Championship scheduled for October 13, in Hawaii.
If the USADA sanctions him (or in other words finds him guilty), Armstrong can request a hearing by an independent panel of arbitrators, which could also be open to the public if Armstrong requests it and the arbitrators agree. At this point there is no timetable for any of that, and no resolution in sight.
Armstrong has been a lifelong fighter – of cancer, or torturous racing, of federal investigators – but even he seems to have reached a limit. "In my mind, I'm truly done," he says. "You can interpret that however you want. But no matter what happens, I'm finished. I'm done fighting."
He certainly doesn't need the money or the prestige and professes to care more about having won seven times than what the USADA officials and former teammates have to say about him. But can a guy like this really take it lying down? We'll see.