At what point will society’s fury against Lance Armstrong be satisfied?
Will it be when Armstrong has to sell his remaining luxury items, including his houses in Aspen and Austin? Or will it be when Armstrong has to hand over most of his earthly possessions not to the people he truly wronged – such as Greg LeMond or Frankie and Betsy Andreu – but to former teammate/fellow doper Floyd Landis and the US Postal Service, both of whom profited handsomely from association with the cancer patient-turned-Tour de France megastar-turned-pariah?
The latter is a possible outcome of a federal suit that goes to trial next month, in which the federal government is seeking damages for false claims – specifically, Armstrong and his team claiming to be drug-free – and Landis would profit as a “whistleblower” who initiated the suit.
For the moment, Armstrong is still living well. An Outside magazine profile last month found Armstrong enjoying himself at the center of a thriving social circle in Aspen, playing golf and recording podcasts while enjoying family time. But Armstrong also has lost a lot of friends and a lot of money. By Outside’s accounting, the lawsuit could take most of the rest of his holdings.
At this point, much of Armstrong’s life is literally unreal. Officially, he never won the Tour de France. On the Tour’s official site, the years 1999-2005 have been whitewashed, with no official winner listed. Each year explains the gaps in the record with one simple sentence: “Armstrong disqualified for doping.” Or, in years with multiple infractions: “Armstrong, Leipheimer, Van de Velde, Hincapie disqualified for doping.”
The history being told in court also will be somewhere between amusingly incomplete and outright dishonest.
In legal terms, the suit is a ‘qui tam’ case, in which a whistleblower alleges someone has violated the False Claims Act by making false claims against the government. In this case, the government is involved because the US Postal Service sponsored Armstrong and his team through many of his now-erased Tour victories.
If the government acts upon the case and wins, the whistleblower is entitled to a share of the recovered money. In a false claims case, awards are tripled, so the whistleblower can get quite a chunk of cash. The original complaint, filed in June 2010, gives Landis’ account of doping within the US Postal Service team by Armstrong and many teammates, including Landis himself.
The case languished for a couple of years with no government action. But after Armstrong sat for a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey and confessed his misdeeds in January 2013, the government jumped in with gusto, even successfully objecting to Landis’ attempt to settle with parties that the government had not been pursuing. (The government relented this summer.)
The lawsuit features lawyers scrambling to keep anyone from saying in court all the things the rest of us already know. Armstrong’s team wants to keep out the 2012 US Anti-Doping Agency report detailing all his misdeeds, along with testimony from LeMond and Betsy Andreu. The other side doesn’t want the court to hear much about Landis losing his own Tour de France win in 2006 after flunking a drug test or that the US Postal Service earned more than $100m in global exposure by sponsoring Armstrong’s team, according to their own research.
Armstrong’s lawyers have been hammering the last point, noting that the powers that be were well aware of doping problems in cycling and merrily went along for the ride anyway.
“Although the government now pretends to be aggrieved by these allegations, its actions at the time are far more telling: Did it immediately fire the Postal Service Team?” Armstrong’s lawyers wrote in July 2013. “Did it suspend the team pending an investigation? Did it refer the matter to its phalanx of lawyers and investigators at the Department of Justice for review? It did not. Rather than exercise its right to terminate the sponsorship agreement, it instead renewed its contract to sponsor the team. The rationale behind the government’s decision is obvious. Armstrong had recently won the 2000 Tour de France. The government wanted a winner and all the publicity, exposure, and acclaim that goes along with being his sponsor.
“It got exactly what it bargained for.”
The fact that the government is seeking damages from a situation in which, by all available accounting, they profited isn’t just ironic. It may hurt the case against Armstrong. US District Judge Christopher Cooper – perhaps a little more sympathetic to Armstrong than was Robert Wilkins, who presided over the case before his elevation to the Court of Appeals – seems skeptical that the government is entitled to everything it’s asking.
“The government may attempt to prove that the positive benefits of the sponsorship were reduced – or even eliminated altogether – by the negative publicity that accompanied the subsequent investigation and disclosure of Armstrong’s doping,” Cooper wrote in a February opinion denying Armstrong’s motion to dismiss. “But it is not entitled to the return of all of its money, tripled no less, simply because it never would have sponsored a ‘doping’ team.”
But Cooper allowed the case to proceed because the dollar figures in question are so difficult to pin down: “Ultimately, however, the Court concludes that the monetary amount of the benefits USPS received is not sufficiently quantifiable to keep any reasonable juror from finding that the agency suffered a net loss on the sponsorship, especially if one considers the adverse effect on the Postal Service’s revenues and brand value that may have resulted from the negative publicity surrounding the subsequent investigations of Armstrong’s doping and his widely publicized confession. Determination of damages must therefore be left to a jury.”
So the government’s case hinges upon the notion that the US Postal Service brand suffered by association with Armstrong. Are people really opting to send packages via FedEx simply because the USPS spent so much money to promote itself via a cyclist who went a little too fast?
Then we hit the elephant in the courtroom – another big fact Armstrong’s accusers don’t want aired in court: Everyone else was doing it. Indeed, LeMond worries that, even with advances in drug testing, the world’s top cyclists may still be doing it.
So while we argue from a legal point of view, the other aspect of this is the practical point of view in which we know confessed dopers are still regarded as Tour de France winners. Bjarne Riis is still listed as the 1996 champion even after admitting he was doping through the mid-90s, and 1997 champion Jan Ullrich refused to return Olympic medals on the grounds that he was simply keeping up with his pharmaceutically enhanced rivals. The 1998 Tour was rendered ridiculous by retroactive tests and confessions.
The next seven years were the Armstrong years, in which organizers essentially gave up on the notion of finding a “clean” rider worthy of inheriting the championships Armstrong vacated. The next year, 2006, Landis won and lost the yellow jersey. In 2007, Michael Rasmussen was leading the Tour when his own team kicked him out of the race over a drug testing dispute. He later confessed to extensive doping. Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 win.
Most of these cyclists are living in relative peace today. Some are commentators on cycling broadcasts. Some have business interests in cycling. They’re generally not being hounded over their years of participating in a performance-enhanced peloton.
So what exactly is the point here? To demonstrate that Armstrong isn’t a role model? Hasn’t that been done?
Or is simply that we don’t know when to stop?