In many ways, the sporting public owes Lance Armstrong a debt of gratitude. Were it not for the scale of the doping operation which supported him and his subsequent voracity in the defence of his innocence, the size of his sporting fraud may never have been brought to light. It is ironic to think that in many ways it was Lance’s own personality that sparked the doggedness of those that would bring him down. The investigative work of David Walsh, Pierre Ballester, Paul Kimmage and Jeff Nowitski, as well as the testimony of many, culminating in the USADA Reasoned Decision and Lance’s own confession to Oprah Winfrey. And so for the first time in the social media age, the curtain was pulled back on the sporting world and we all saw in excruciating detail just who the wizard really was.
It was a watershed moment for sport. A vindication for all those who simply did not believe what they were seeing. A victory for people who had been labelled cynics by those in states of wilful delusion or blissful ignorance. The innocence of the sporting public was eroded significantly.
I say we owe Lance a debt for helping open our eyes, as since his downfall, we have had the FIFA corruption scandal, the ARD investigations into Russian athletics and IAAF cover-ups, positive retests of athletes from the Olympics in London 2012, FSB involvement in test manipulation in Sochi. Heck, we’ve gotten so cynical that Jamie Vardy pictured at Euro 2016 with a can of red bull and some chewing tobacco sparked front page news about the utilisation of substances that aren’t currently banned.
That is why, in this enlightened and less believing age, the behaviour of the Spanish courts has been a major cause for concern. The decision in 2013 to order the destruction of the 200+ blood bags that remained from the Operation Puerto investigation into the doping activities of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes without identifying to whom the bags belonged has never sat comfortably. Andy Murray went as far as to call it “beyond a joke” and questioned whether it was the “biggest cover-up in sports history?” At the time in 2006, only professional road cyclists were named in the investigation. From the outside it could be viewed that, if a cover up was at play, then an obvious tactic might be to use cycling as a scapegoat to downplay the seriousness, scope and impact that could be caused by a full reveal of the Fuentes doping machine. Cycling having already endured several doping scandals and blotted it’s copybook in the eyes of the public.
However, both Fuentes himself and star witness, cyclist Jesus Manzano both heavily indicated that both professional tennis players and champions league footballers were part of the scheme too. And so this week’s reversal of that destruction order marks the application of some common sense in the case at last. What must the owners of those bags be thinking this week? The law just rode into a wild western outpost in the doping world.
After USADA and Oprah, the most damage done to Lance Armstrong was to his reputation and, as a bi-product, to his future ability to earn. The anti-doping movement may be at a disadvantage in terms of detecting dopers in a faster and more comprehensive way, but shame is a powerful tool. And nothing stains like being labelled a cheat. That’s why the decision in Puerto is so important. If we believe in clean sport, and are serious about protecting what integrity might remain, then we cannot miss any opportunity, no matter how late in the day, to identify and name these individuals. The statute of limitations may have passed for any kind of sporting punishment, but reputations can be tarnished, future earnings impaired and a modicum of fairness provided for those who competed against them clean. And for fans of sports who haven’t been impacted by this growing trend of scandalous revelations, time to extract heads from sand. It’s open season.