Menu

A lifetime ban: Does the time fit the crime?

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Dec. 16, 2013
  • Updated 2 days ago
Johan Bruyneel and his former charge Lance Armstrong have been banned for life. Is it fair? Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com (file)

Does the time fit the crime?

That’s a question that Lance Armstrong has been raising during the course of a few well-placed interviews over the past several weeks, telling La Gazzetta dello Sport earlier this month, “My punishment is a thousand times bigger than the ‘crime’ I committed.”

A career of doping shouldn’t equate to a lifetime ban — at least, not in Armstrong’s mind.

Any doubts about the fairness of the “death sentence” handed down by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to Armstrong and others could get a fresh airing this week if Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong’s longtime confidante and sport director, keeps his promise to press for arbitration.

Proceedings are scheduled to begin Monday in London, where Bruyneel now resides, but everyone remained close-lipped even as late as this weekend.

Insiders whispered that the once-mighty Belgian sport director had dropped his right to arbitration, and, like Armstrong, would not challenge the lifetime ban imposed by USADA with its Reasoned Decision in October 2012. VeloNews could not reach Bruyneel for confirmation.

As with Armstrong, Bruyneel’s carefully crafted image as a master tactician evaporated within hours of the release of the scathing Reasoned Decision. “We Might As Well Dope,” a play on Bruyneel’s autobiography, has become his post-USADA, Twitter-era epitaph.

Unlike Armstrong, who confessed his seven consecutive Tour de France victories were fueled by a highly effective cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs and blood transfusions, Bruyneel has remained largely silent.

And while Armstrong has started to inch carefully back into the public arena, with a series of interviews, off-the-record chats with media and a recently completed European “apology tour,” Bruyneel has all but disappeared.

The media-savvy Belgian, who used to flow during interviews from French to Spanish to English to Flemish, as easily as switching gears on a bike, has become a recluse in London, where he moved a few years ago from Spain. He has largely avoided talking to the press.

In one of his few interviews earlier this year, Bruyneel insisted he was “not the devil” for his doping indiscretions, and in a recent chat with Luxembourg TV he claimed he was “done with cycling.”

Should Bruyneel proceed to arbitration, some suggest he will not be trying to demonstrate his innocence, but rather attempting to undermine — at least in the court of public opinion — the legitimacy of the tactics deployed by USADA.

A principal element of that would be to challenge USADA’s jurisdiction to impose lifetime bans on Bruyneel and two Spaniards who have likewise pressed for arbitration, Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral and trainer Pepe Martí.

However, USADA asserts that it has the right to impose bans on the Europeans, citing domestic links to sponsorships and Armstrong, and argues further that a lifetime ban was well within reason for the depth and depravity of what the agency described as a “doping conspiracy.”

Tactics aside, Bruyneel seems to feel that he and his former cohorts have been unfairly singled out, rationalizing their behavior in the context of the times — that they were only playing by the rules of the game that were in place during the anything-goes EPO era.

Over the past few months, Armstrong has been more vocal in pressing this argument —that he, Bruyneel, and the others operating within the structure at U.S. Postal Service were simply in tune with a peloton charged up and racing with impunity. Armstrong no longer denies having doped; instead, he and Bruyneel argue that they did nothing that the rest of the peloton wasn’t doing.

As Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey in his TV confession in January, doping in cycling was as commonplace as “having air in your tires or water in your bottle.”

Indeed, Armstrong continually calls the doping program at U.S. Postal Service “conservative,” insisting that they doped just enough to win, and, at the same time, avoid detection. And he notes that none of his formal rivals has stepped up to claim one or more of his seven yellow jerseys.

It’s been interesting to observe Armstrong trying to get his head around the enormity of what has happened to him. It’s hard to think of an athlete who has suffered a more vertiginous fall from grace.

Once a superhero cancer fighter who beat the Europeans at their own game, becoming a Hollywood A-lister who dined with presidents and prime ministers, Armstrong is now an international poster child for doping in sport.

His world was ripped out from underneath him, with all of his sponsors abruptly walking away, costing him millions of dollars of future income. And to add insult to injury, the Lance Armstrong Foundation dropped the name of its founder to become the Livestrong Foundation, and Armstrong stepped down as a member of the board.

Armstrong does seem contrite, at least by his standards, and intent on rebuilding his life, though even he admits it will never be the same.

“My life is a lot more public now,” Armstrong told Joe Lindsey in an interview posted on ESPN.com last week. “I’ll be frank … the Gulfstream is gone. I’m on JetBlue and United. So I spend a lot of time on airplanes with other people, and in terminals, or just traveling around and going to restaurants or whatever.”

To coincide with a recent string of interviews, Armstrong has also undertaken an unofficial international “apology tour” of sorts, visiting his former antagonists to ask forgiveness.

First, he met with Emma O’Reilly, the former soigneur who was the first whistleblower to begin unraveling the PR facade.

Then he went to Paris to meet Christophe Bassons, the French pro who spit in the soup in 1999, for which Armstrong quickly bullied him out of the peloton. In Italy, he tried to meet Filippo Simeoni, the hard-luck Italian who dared to speak the truth about Michele Ferrari and whom Armstrong infamously chased down while in the yellow jersey late in the 2004 Tour, effectively ending Simeoni’s chance to try to win a stage.

To his detractors, Armstrong’s latest maneuvers are just one more example of his malice and cynicism. In a well-written piece for crankpunk.com, Betsy Andreu warned that Armstrong’s “redemption tour is a charade.”

Still, the argument he and Bruyneel make is worth examining: Is USADA’s lifetime ban too severe a punishment?

In legal circles, the idea of “proportionality” is a fundamental tenet to sentencing. A jail term is generally considered too harsh for petty misdemeanors, just as a fine and a slap on the wrist are too lenient for violent crime.

From the beginning, the Armstrong scandal was extraordinary, not just in the scope and sophistication of cheating, but also in the acrimony staining the battle between Armstrong’s platoon of lawyers and Tygart’s legal staff.

What Armstrong isn’t reminding everyone during his interviews is that his lawyers fought Tygart at every turn, and strove in vain to undermine the legitimacy of the USADA.

His complaints about the justice of his punishment elicit no sympathy from the man largely responsible for it. Tygart says Armstrong had his chance to cooperate with investigators, for which he could have received a lesser penalty, and passed on it, something Armstrong claims is not true.

And, citing the World Anti-Doping Code, USADA insists the lifetime bans are indeed proportionate to what the agency described as a doping program arching from Armstrong’s return from cancer in 1998 to the end of his second comeback from retirement into 2010.

The 202-page Reasoned Decision is a tremendous document. Its depth and detail leaves absolutely no doubt about what took place, and it also answers the question of proportionality. After reading the Reasoned Decision, a lifetime ban seems appropriate for the actions catalogued in the document.

The Reasoned Decision goes beyond Armstrong’s cheating to outline how he and Bruyneel forced others to dope as well. For Tygart, who worked under the WADA Code to prepare the document, a lifetime ban was indeed proportional.

One of the great strengths of the USADA case is that it drives to the root of the doping problem, imposing bans not only on Armstrong and other cyclists, who received reduced, six-month sentences, but also targeting the shadowy, backroom enablers who helped athletes procure the drugs, administer them, and avoid doping controls.

For years, many decried a hypocritical system that dished out ever-stiffer racing bans to cyclists, while the mechanisms that drove those cyclists to doping remained untouched.

The Reasoned Decision is a landmark document in that it brought down the entire Armstrong-Bruyneel doping architecture, going after not only Armstrong, who made hundreds of millions of dollars while doping his way to seven straight Tour wins, but also operators like Bruyneel and Michele Ferrari, the likes of whom had previously remained largely immune to sanctions.

In their bête noire, Tygart, Bruyneel and Armstrong finally met an opponent as tenacious and unrelenting in enforcing the anti-doping rules as they were at defying them.

And when the dust settled, Tygart chose to apply the full weight of the WADA Code — imposing lifetime bans, making an example of them in what’s a landmark case in the fight for clean sport.

So far, the only people who seem to be complaining are Armstrong and Bruyneel.

USADA’s searing claim that the U.S. Postal Service team ran “the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen” will haunt Armstrong and Bruyneel for the remainder of their lives.

Once they were above the rules of mere mortals. Now they’re out of the game for life. Small wonder that a competitor like Armstrong, whose identity as an athlete has been central to his life since childhood, deems it an unreasonable and unbearable decision.

 

 

FILED UNDER: Analysis / Tour de France TAGS: / / /

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

Stay Up to Date on Everything Cycling

Subscribe to the FREE VeloNews newsletter