Friday, 24 August 2012

Lance Armstrong and doping – what, if anything, is left to say?



So now I am finally free to write about Lance Armstrong with little chance of initiating a lawsuit, I find rather little of interest to say. Everyone had pretty much made their minds up one way or another anyway and I think the story had already been factored into people’s views about the Tour de France and doping. I suppose as a scientist a few things stand out that are still unresolved. Let’s assume that if Lance was doping – which I am sure he will deny to his grave – then he beat a lot of people who were also doping. Was he better at doping (possible)? In some strange way was his testicular cancer and its benefit in a real biochemical/physiological way (possible I guess, but the mechanism would be strange)? Or was he just head and shoulders above every one else in his talent, training and preparation that in anything close to a level playing field he would emerge victorious (I guess the most probable answer)?

As a scientist, I don’t think I can comment too much on the US Anti Doping (USADA) agency evidence. The case is after all predicated primarily on detective work and witness statements, not scientific analysis of blood or urine samples. We don’t have the fine details yet although USDA do say they will reveal it in due course; I really hope they publish it all for the good of the sport, including naming all their sources. I personally would like to know what was the basis for the following statement “Additionally, scientific data showed Mr. Armstrong’s use of blood manipulation including EPO or blood transfusions during Mr. Armstrong’s comeback to cycling in the 2009 Tour de France”. Clearly these cannot have been direct EPO tests or he would have been banned at the time. Nor can they have been homologous blood transfusions (also detectable). They must be a version of the athlete hematological passport (which was later introduced by cycling). But on their own they cannot have been definitive it seems to me or more would have been made of them at the time.

So what now? I think my concern is less of what this means for Armstrong but more about the relationship between UCI (cycling’s governing body) and the world’s anti doping agencies. UCI tried to stop the USADA case and it is not clear that they will agree to Armstrong’s Tour de France titles being expunged. In return USADA pretty much accused UCI of corruption  - see http://online.wsj.com/article/AP65c10ede4cfb4303a1870a3d1c18200a.html. It will be a shame if, just as cycling appears to be heading for a “cleaner” phase, some of the momentum is lost with this squabbling. 

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