September 02, 2005

Is Lance Armstrong clean?

By H Natarajan

Hazarding guesses can be dangerous for a journalist’s health, especially when it comes to passing judgment on sportspersons targeted by allegations of drug misuse. Ben Johnson and Diego Maradona showed the world that athletes are capable of Oscar-winning performances when it comes to lying in front of the cameras. So, is the latest allegation against Lance Armstrong any different?

Let’s collate the allegations, statements made in defense, historical truths, medical and research pronouncements, observation of fellow cyclists and analyse them dispassionately.

L'Equipe, which broke the news, has been part of the Tour de France's sponsorship since its inception and is situated in the same building as the Tour’s. It’s a respectable newspaper whose office I have visited in Paris and interacted with the top editors. But newspapers are run by humans and thus not free of human failings and errors. In fact, while the rest of the world sang hosannas when one of the greatest-ever athletes bid farewell to cycling, L’Equipe chose to be disgustingly different when it said: “Never has an athlete's retirement been so welcome.” It was sensationally savage, to put it mildly, and revealed the line adopted by the newspaper - an example of L’Equipe’s frosty relationship with Armstrong.

The thought foremost on reading the allegation: Why this bizarre interest to study urine sample taken eight years ago? Armstrong has probably tested more often than any living athlete. He has tested before, during and after the races. World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has also subjected him to surprise tests. But while allegations about drugs use have been widespread throughout his career, they have been just that – allegations. Unsubstantiated rumours. He has not failed a single drug test in a 14-year career. That’s an unimpeachable truth.

A spokesman for WADA opined that like the lab in Paris that tested Armstrong’s 1999 urine sample, it (WADA) had no means of matching names to the samples. Only the French Cycling Federation, the French Sports Ministry or the International Cycling Union, he added, could only do that. This fact, coupled with the newspaper leak to a French newspaper, and the historical animosity of the French towards Armstrong all suggests that things may not be hunky-dory.

“I will tell you two things, and I don't know how involved WADA was in this affair, but I know two pieces of the WADA code that are very important. Number one, if an athlete has one only sample left, it is strictly mandated that that sample must always remain anonymous. If any WADA accredited laboratory wants to use that sample, for experimentation, or scientific research, they must have the approval of the athlete. So right there, you have two serious violations of the new WADA code. Now, I don't need to tell you guys that Chatenay-Malabry is one of the main WADA labs in the world," Armstrong said after the allegations made worldwide headlines.

Miguel Indurain, five-time Tour de France winner, believes the accusations against Armstrong are part of a campaign to discredit the American and, as obvious from Armstrong’s above words, questioned the legality of the claims. Indurain was unambiguous when he said: "They have been out to get him in France for a number of years." He was only echoing a popular belief.

Germany’s Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner and thrice runner-up to Armstrong, said: "Lance is the greatest of our time and maybe somebody's trying to put him down…all of this is very speculative." Jacques de Ceaurriz, the head of France's anti-doping laboratory, which developed the EPO urine test, had said that at least 15 urine samples from the 1999 Tour had also tested positive for EPO. Why haven’t their names been made public? Why was Armstrong singled out?
The world wondered how a man could not only cheat death, in the manner Armstrong did, but also come to compete – leave aside winning seven consecutive times – an event that the fittest in the world. Is he a genetic freak? Is he a superman? Or, is he a drugs cheat?Sandra Blakeslee of The New York Times wrote a beautiful article to provide evidence of Armstrong’s extraordinary strength and endurance. “Armstrong can cover 32 miles in one hour of riding. In contrast, the average cyclist covers 16 miles; a top marathon runner can cover 21 miles on a bike. He can ride up the mountains in France generating about 500 watts of power for 20 minutes, something a typical 25-year-old could do for only 30 seconds. A professional hockey player might last three minutes - and then throw up,” she wrote.

A scientist, Dr. Edward Coyle, who monitored Armstrong at regular intervals from 1992 to 1999, opined that the American’s prowess could be explained by a set of physiological changes that took place in his body over those seven years and that, in all probability, are continuing. The changes are described in an article, Improved Muscular Efficiency Displayed as Tour de France Champion Matures, in The Journal of Applied Physiology, the NYT report added.

Dr Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas who studied cyclists for 25 years, says Armstrong has an exceptionally large heart and the lowest lactic levels he has ever seen. When Armstrong was around 20, he showed only average muscle efficiency - the percentage of chemical energy that the muscles are able to harness to produce power. But smarter training saw him develop higher muscle efficiency for greater generation of power.

From 1992 to 1999, the year of his first Tour de France win, Armstrong was able to increase his muscle efficiency by eight percent through hard and dedicated training. Coyle says Armstrong is the only human who has been shown to change his muscle efficiency.

"It was believed that muscle efficiency is something you're born with, that you can't change," Coyle said. "But we've documented that Armstrong has indeed changed it while training intensely."

When exhausted, muscles build up acid and stop contracting. But Armstrong's muscles produce about half as much acid as the average person's muscles do when they get fatigued, allowing him recover faster than others.

Armstrong admits blood-boosting drug erythropoietin (EPO) – the performance-enhancing drug he is accused of taking - was used during his chemotherapy treatment till late 1996. But EPO and its benefits, medical experts say, would be out of one's system within a month. So there is no way it would have remained in his system three years later. Armstrong questions, not without logic, how only six of his samples tested positive when he gave 17. “What happened to the other eleven?” he queries.

Nobody talks of how the breach of confidentiality happened. Unless the culprit is found and fixed, drug-cheat detecting agencies will lose their credibility. To say that, the finding is inconclusive or Armstrong cannot be indicted on the basis of mere ‘B’ samples is fine. Even if there are no retrospective sanctions against him, the fact remains that a single act of indiscretion has destroyed an athlete’s credibility. It has the potential to deprive billions of dollars in livelihood of one of the biggest high-profile athletes in the world.

Armstrong may or may not be guilty, but before pointing an accusing finer, we need to ask: Can it be said without an iota of doubt that he is guilty? If not, as seems the case, then he should get the benefit of doubt.

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