Sports has its share of urban myths, some noble, some harmless, some serious:
Most Olympians are amateurs. Home teams always have an advantage. Not failing a drug test means you're clean.
You've probably heard Lance Armstrong float that last one a time or two now that another one of his former friends and teammates has said what other former friends and teammates of Armstrong's seem to say with surprising regularity: That America's most important cultural sports icon is a doper, a cheater and a liar, or words to that effect.
Armstrong's latest combative attempt to sway American public opinion came in the form of a tweet May 19, three days before CBS' 60 Minutes aired the most damaging report yet on Armstrong's alleged performance-enhancing drug use:
" 20+ year career. 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case."
Not so fast, Lance. Marion Jones passed approximately 160 drug tests over her 10-year international career. She never once tested positive.
But on Oct. 5, 2007, there she was on the steps of the U.S. District Courthouse in White Plains, N.Y., after pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs. "It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust," she said through tears that day. She later spent six months in prison.
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Armstrong and his defense team must remember the Marion Jones story. They must be able to recall that she, like Lance, never failed a drug test.
Yet they hope you don't remember. They hope that you think that drug testing is perfect, that the good chemists are way ahead of the bad chemists (and not vice versa) and that every athlete who has ever cheated has been caught.
This way, Lance remains pure, and all those cyclists who have known him for years and are saying the same accusatory words about him — they're lying, all of them.
But drug testing, try as the authorities might, isn't foolproof. New designer drugs are always likely to be in the mix, going undetected by the drug police because only the bad guys know they exist. A technique known as micro-dosing allows athletes to cheat a little and still come in under the wire when it comes time to be tested. And there's the age-old way to beat the test: get off the juice in time.
"We've made great advances in the science of detecting doping, but it's not perfect," Gary Wadler, immediate past chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's prohibited list committee, said Wednesday. "There are loopholes. There are those athletes who are surrounded by gurus who have made themselves experts in finding the loopholes and weaknesses in the system. So you have people saying, 'I have passed all these tests, so I haven't doped,' but that's taking a quantum leap."
Travis Tygart, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO, agreed, saying in an email: "The fear of testing positive serves as a strong deterrent for many athletes who might otherwise make the decision to defraud sport by doping. That being said, we know that some well-resourced, sophisticated dopers with the infrastructure in place can evade a positive test. Fortunately for clean athletes, authorities also have the ability to sanction athletes using dangerous performance-enhancing drugs based on reliable evidence other than a positive test."
That's the way the U.S. government finally caught Jones, and it might be the way it gets Armstrong, if he's indicted.
Team Armstrong has embarked on a spirited defense of its hero. "Every cyclist who appeared on 60 Minutes has in the past sworn that they never doped," Armstrong attorney Mark Fabiani said. "Now, their stories have suddenly changed out of desire for money and the need for attention."
Or, perhaps, their desire to stay out of prison for committing perjury. It seems that cyclists don't quite see themselves as future Greg Andersons — willing to spend months in jail to not testify against their man.
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Fabiani also has taken to calling the U.S. government's investigation "nonsensical," decrying the "enormous wasted resources" that could have gone to "investigations that might actually protect Americans from wrongdoing."
But isn't it possible that's exactly what the government is doing? ESPN reported that the U.S. Postal Service spent $31.9 million to underwrite Armstrong's team from 2001 to 2004, during the height of his career.
That's a federal agency sponsoring an American who remains a role model for millions. If some of that agency's money was spent on drugs and deceit, as so many cyclists have said, isn't it time we found out?