Lance Armstrong is world-class – at capturing regulators
Lance Armstrong’s world-class abilities – as an athlete, manipulator, liar, and bi-pedal pharmacological wonder – are well-documented. What shouldn’t be overlooked, though, is that Armstrong also excelled at capturing his regulators, the same way banks and other industries capture theirs. His undetected doping fueled success, and Armstrong deployed that success better than anyone in the sport as a tool to continue doping.
At his peak, Armstrong was the biggest star in cycling, and a bigger star than any cyclist before him. He needed cycling, but cycling officials and race organizers, not to mention sponsors and manufacturers, needed him too. Here’s his former teammate Frankie Andreu:
He owned the cycling industry. Whatever he said, happened. He had a ton of money and money can buy a lot of things that other people can’t get. He knew who did what, because he was the ringleader.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), led by Travis Tygart, documented what this ownership looked like in astonishing detail. The sustained evasion from detection was pulled off not by luck but with the same blend of precision, intensity and deep arrogance that accompanied everything else Armstrong accomplished.
The tactics Armstrong used to capture the governing body of international cycling were certainly different from those used by financial firms to captured the Office of Thrift Supervision and the SEC, or the more subtle but potentially more insidious ways high-level policymakers were co-opted. But the dynamic and outcome are the same: Under-resourced regulators become complicit in the continuation of a type of behavior they were created to prevent and punish.
Armstrong never avoided getting caught simply through duplicity. It was more than that: “He had the UCI in his back pocket,” as Betsy Andreu said. He made two payments, one in 2002 and another in 2005, totaling $125,000. Former teammates Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis say those payments were made to make a 2001 positive test at the Swiss Tour “go away.”
The governing body of a famously drug-infested sport claimed it needed the cash because it didn’t have enough money to conduct its own drug-testing regime. So it asked (according to Armstrong) a rider subject to those drug tests, who was also worth tens of millions of dollars, to fund them. The power imbalance is obvious, and the mutual conflict of interest is blatant. The former head of the UCI says nothing about the payments was “ever hidden.” Nothing, except, as subsequent reporting has made clear, what the actual use of the money was and where it ended up – the UCI still hasn’t been able to provide a credible answer to either question.
Maybe the UCI lied to Lance, or maybe Lance is lying about what the UCI told him and the money was never spent on drug testing. The latter is obviously even worse. But even the generous interpretation is bad. That imagines Armstrong as partially paying for drug tests that he was (ostensibly) subject to. That optimistic scenario is an insane failure of regulatory independence.
Tellingly, when asked by Oprah if he had been afraid of getting caught, Armstrong’s answer was an emphatic “no.” “I was risk-averse,” he said. Risk aversion generally doesn’t mean going to incredible lengths to conceal and perpetuate fraudulent professional behavior.
Despite Armstrong’s denial that the payments were made to make the tests go away, the facts still suggest favorable treatment. Tygart alleges Armstrong offered USADA $250,000 in 2004 to drop the charges against him. Armstrong, it appears, believed he could bribe his way through regulation yet again.
Armstrong won races by doping, and, as Tygart showed, doing so more effectively and consistently than anyone else in the sport. Twenty of the 21 Tour de France podium finishers, Armstrong included, from 1999 to 2005 have been, in USADA’s words, “directly tied” to doping. Yet his competitors got caught much, much sooner than he did and had far less success. Armstrong’s continued evasion wasn’t based on his separation from regulators, but his close relationship with them.
PHOTO: Lance Armstrong walks back to his car after running at Mount Royal park with fans in Montreal August 29, 2012. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi