Friday, August 24, 2012

Should we assume that Lance Armstrong is doping?

Today, the news came out that Lance Armstrong is no longer going to fight allegations made by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that he used performance enhancing drugs. The USADA says they want to strip him of his Tour de France titles but they don’t necessarily have the authority to do so. Armstrong, who maintains his innocence, says that there is no point in fighting a corrupt organization and promises to sue them if they continue to make false claims about him.

For cycling fans this is a big deal. Philosophically, though, we have to ask whether his refusing to fight suggests some sort of guilt and what kind of evidence is necessary to establish his guilt (f there is any). These were the topic of an excellent discussion I had with friends on Facebook. Instead of writing a new blog entry, I’m offering-up the transcript for your reading pleasure.

It seems rare to have a good, calm, thoughtful conversation on Facebook. No one gets mad, no one insults anyone else, and although there is some playfulness and anger at the beginning, it clams down very quickly into a real interaction. I offer this is a model of what a difficult and often philosophical conversation might look like on a social network. (I’m proud of my friends!) Feel free to add your own two cents in the comments section.

(For the record, all people referred to are cyclists who have been accused of and admitting to doping. The most relevant is Floyd Landis who was accused, wrote a book maintaining his innocence, was found guilty, and then admitted that he had been lying all along. The exception to this is Michael Phelps who, of course, is the American swimmer who just became the most decorated Olympian of modern times.)

Jack’s Status: If they strip Lance of his titles, I will never watch another cycling race, I will never buy another racing magazine. Screw you USADA and screw all of you who live to destroy legends and optimism.

Brandon: fuck those clowns...the man is a hero....

Bill T.:
Did you think he was not doping?

 I do not think he was doping. No. I don't at all. He has never tested positive for any banned substance and they have harassed people into a corner. Cyclists will say anything to be left out of the witch hunt. I think he is a physiological marvel like Michael Phelps and he trained exclusively for the tour. He did not dope.

And screw you unicorns!

There are a lot of teammates who came forward with damning stuff...

QFE: "At every turn, USADA has played the role of a bully, threatening everyone in its way and challenging the good faith of anyone who questions its motives or its methods, all at U.S. taxpayers’ expense. "

The only agencies with the authority to strip him of his titles have said USADA can NOT do this. Their own rules and bylaws give them 8 years to bring forth a claim and yet they are harping on a SEVENTEEN year old allegation from a bitter betty sore loser.

Bill T.:
What does he gain (net) in ending his fight against this? It doesn't seem the kind of fight a champion walks away from... Unless the fight would be a costly determination of guilt...

Bill T, he's answered enough questions about it. By stepping aside now he leaves the USADA looking stupid. He's saved us some tax dollars spent on this witch hunt. Their whole case was only coerced hearsay. If he doped then they all did so who do you give those titles to? I'll give some more money to his foundation and continue to support him.

Oh, it would be costly alright. That's the point, Bill. What the USADA can't gain by evidence, they gain by pressure. Right now, there is zero physical evidence to support USADA's actions against Lance Armstrong. We are hearing leaks about "ten people", and "two blood tests", but we're not being shown the evidence. Does the evidence exist? If this is to be a just process, it has to.

Bill C:
It is important to realize, however, that the evidence is not being produced because Armstrong bailed from the process. So we'll never know whether the evidence exists or not.

I think the real issue is not whether Armstrong used PED, but whether what he did was wrong.

Lance is very inspirational figure for me. Read his book "It's Not About the Bike" a few years back. Great read! I recently got a copy for a high school friend who has cancer. It was very inspirational to her as well ( she's doing great by the way). Cycling is a strange sport wrought with cheaters. De he cheat? I don't know, but he is probably the most scrutinized athlete in history and has passed every test along the way. As far a ceasing to cooperate, at what point would anyone say enough is enough.

Bill C:
The issue is really a funny one. Somehow we've convinced ourselves that if an athlete passes a "test" he or she is clean, even though we all know that this kind of drug testing lacks even basic transparency (and this is true of all sports). Drug tests like all forms of regulation in all sports are political. Armstrong passing tests is neither testimony to his innocence or evidence that he doped. (And for people who think that Armstrong was being singled out, you're obviously right, but he also had unprecedented protection in a sport that is fundamentally based on a star system).

At the same time, it is clear that the entire peloton used various PEDs. The pace of the race and the heroic solo rides in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 21st century were impossible to imagine even just a few decades earlier. All riders used PEDs.

Whether Armstrong did something wrong or not, is another question entirely. Since the drug testing process itself is political and Armstrong's defense is clearly political, then I think we have to look for an answer in the politics of the sport rather than in some kind of inherent morality in using PEDs.

What Armstrong has done outside the sport, is undoubtedly commendable, but for us to understand this issue thoroughly, we need to decide whether Armstrong's position outside the sport entitled him to unprecedented protection inside the sport. (We can compare him, for example, to Miguel Indurain who was also given unprecedented protection in cycling.) Did he break an unspoken code by flaunting his professional advantages and protections? Was his behavior justified since he claimed it was directed toward a greater good or encoded as part of a uplifting narrative? How much did personal gain factor into his actions? Did he endanger the good he was doing by being selfish, winning so much, being so arrogant? If he had won the Tour once after cancer would his legacy have been just as significant and, more importantly, less open to challenge? (Again, compare him to Indurain.)

Bill it's not that funny. So you're cool with the millions of tax dollars spent to pursue this witch hunt? Aside from being physical freaks he & Miguel have very little in common. I'm glad he's bailed on this circus. Let's see the evidence they have. If they never produce it then the assumption has to be they never had a case. Also let's see what the UCI does because the USADA has zippo say as to his tour titles.

See, This is how it happens. After a decade of allegations, of no evidence and no reputable testimony, people feel the need to change or qualify the question so they can talk as if he did something wrong. Bill T. you said the question is whether he did something wrong not whether he's PED. What can that possibly mean? if he didn't use PED, he did nothing wrong and there's no real evidence to suggest he did.

Bill C., your position is now that lack of tests don't suggest innocence, that his very participation suggests guilt. I challenge that. My position is that he did not use PEDs and I refuse to entertain the slippery-slope argument that takes his use as given to justifies his actions in the name of his charitable work. Finally, I didn't find Lance any more arrogant than anyone else. In fact, his use of his off-hours time suggests civic responsibility and humility. Did he leave his wife for rock goddesses and models? Sure. But "yawn." He's rich and famous. That's what they do.

There is one question and one question only: is there compelling evidence that he used PEDs, and the answer, as far as I am concerned is that he did not.
      Molly: From the NYT: But even without a positive test, the antidoping agency appeared set to move forward with arbitration. It claimed to have more than 10 eyewitnesses who would testify that Armstrong used banned blood transfusions, the blood booster EPO, testosterone and other drugs to win the Tour. Some of Armstrong’s closest teammates, including George Hincapie — one of the most respected American riders — were also expected to testify against him.

The antidoping agency also said it had blood test results of Armstrong’s from 2009 and 2010 that were consistent with doping.

Jack: And this is where is gets awful. Any good lawyer can prove reasonable doubt from the testimony of terrified athletes who are at risk of losing their careers and legacy. If that's what is going on, I can't follow the sport anymore. But if it turns out Lance did use PED, if untainted physical evidence shows it, and that he was lying this whole time, then not only can't I follow the sport, but I'd be irreparably heartbroken. As Craig said, we are just going to have to see what happens, but I, like some others say, am glad he's putting his foot down,

Bill C: Jack, it seems to me that you're avoiding making a much harder judgement by assuming that the incredibly corrupt process of PED testing is somehow neutral. I urge you to reconsider that position. In cycling as in almost any professional sport, drug testing is not a transparent, objective, and neutral process (see Ryan Braun).

So lack of evidence for testing proves nothing. And, it is naive to assume that any elite rider in the peloton in the early 21st century did not use PEDs particularly a rider who transcended the sport in a, frankly, super human way. In any event, drug testing is part of the political discourse of the sport and a means to maintain the competitive balance of the sport. It is not an external, scientific judgment. Powerful cyclists have powerful protections, but also must play the political game. Armstrong chose not to and is suffering because of it.

More to the point, however, is that everyone in cycling in the 1990s and 2000s was suspect for his entire career. It's not like Armstrong was blindsided by people thinking he doped! One-by-one, the heroes of this sport were laid low or escaped. Indurain - a superior cyclist - escaped at the right time with his reputation in tact. Armstrong stubbornly refused to leave the sport when he could have followed Indurain's lead (and Gianni Bugno's and Claudio Chiappucci almost escaped) and politely retired from the sport.

Armstrong flaunted his advantages, and to what end? He knew he would forever be suspect of doping once he began to rack up Tour wins (whether he doped or not). Why did he do it? What was the goal of flaunting the very processes that the sport used to ensure competitive parity?

He is guilty of hubris if nothing else.

Molly: But these other athletes have admitted that they doped too -- haven't they already lost their careers and legacy?

Craig: One of those 10 eyewitnesses would also be Floyd Landis who's a proven compulsive liar. 09 & 10 were consistent with doping? What exactly does that mean. That's also several years after his last tour win.

Jack: I was thinking the same, Craig. Landis did a lot of harm -- losing the legitimacy of that amazing ride is depressing -- but he's clearly a nut job and I can compartmentalize his behavior (and his compelling but oddly-written book-length defense). What he isn't, is reliable in anyway. He wants to take them all down. He shouldn't even be allowed in the discussion.

Eric: What I have a real problem with is the idea that USADA can make accusations with the *appearance* of holding evidence, and when Armstrong declines to participate, the evidence, which we still don't have, is suddenly damning. Case closed. Armstrong declined to be railroaded by USADA, their black box of "evidence", and their clown car full of convicted dopers! That must mean he's guilty! Armstrong declined to spend himself into poverty and use up 8 to 10 MORE years of his life fighting an entrenched, political, highly funded bureaucracy, with no guarantee of exoneration! He's gotta be GUILTY!! My problem is that it sets a bad precedent of arbitration and public opinion holding the weight of law, and, more importantly, of justice. I personally believe that Armstrong doped during all seven of his tour wins. I also believe Indurain doped through all of his, and that Bradley Wiggins is the first clean tour winner in 25 years. I'm not defending Armstong with my stance, I'm defending the process. USADA is not playing by the rules that they created. Their own rules weren't good enough to achieve the result they wanted, so they have changed the rules. Again and again. USADA is doping! Armstrong and his team have outwitted USADA at every turn, and now USADA is pursuing their own, "win at all costs" agenda. It's terrible for athletes, and terrible for the sport.

Jim: Here's a simple question for you all. Is it really cheating to use something that everyone else (most everyone) is also using? Compare cycling to baseball for a moment. The steroid focus was primarily on home run hitters with the exception of Clemens you didn't here much about pitchers. Everyone screamed to subtract HR records from Bonds, Sosa, McGuire, etc..... No one really wanted to talk about the fact that they were facing juiced pitchers who because the weren't hitting the 480 foot bombs and stayed under the radar. When MLB finally instituted testing guess who were getting caught? Pitchers! Many were those fringe players either just cutting it to stay in the majors or bouncing back and forth. So again, can you blame one for trying to keep up with the cheaters and end up also cheating? I hope Lance is innocent, but even if he did cheat my opinion of him isn't going to change much, as he dominated riders that we know WERE cheating.

Craig: Well said Eric. I also would be surprised if he didn't cheat but the USADA has less credibility than Lance does at this point.

Zebulan: It's difficult for me to understand how either side is "winning" this battle. Aren't they both losing in this scenario?

Eric: It makes me sad for these athletes who think this is contributing to a level playing field in the future. It's not. It's politicizing sport. I'm seeing clean athletes support this move by USADA, because, in their eyes, "I'm not a doper, and I have nothing to hide". They don't realize they're handing USADA more power than it deserves, or can properly administer.

Eric: Zeb, in a sense, yes. However, USADA, as an entity, doesn't "care" if it implodes. As long as there is a calling for its function, it will exist under a different name, under a different director. USADA will never die and can never be destroyed. Can't say the same about the human beings USADA goes after. That is why it's important that USADA meets or exceeds a very high bar.

Jack: Pardon me for being a philosopher here, but we are talking about several different questions at once. I’ll frame them as “yes or no” questions:

(1) Did Lance dope?
(2) Do we have reliable evidence that Lance doped?
(3) Does the culture of cycling during his tenure serve as prima facie evidence that he did dope?
(4) If he did dope, is it cheating because everyone else was doing it to?
(5) Is the USADA on a witch hunt?
(6) Is the USADA within its bounds to do the things it wants to do to Lance?
(7) Has the USADA change its rules in its pursuit of Lance’s prosecution?

I do this because I am worried about confusing the questions and my personal insistence is that the answers to (1) and (2) are “no.” I don’t believe he doped and the reason I don’t believe this is that there is no evidence to support it except (3). There definitely was a culture of doping, but we all know that statistics don’t tell us anything about particular cases. Even if it is likely that he doped, it does not follow that he actually did. And in terms of prosecution, “likely” does not meet the standard of “reasonable doubt” nor does it meet the standard of a “preponderance of the evidence.” Thus, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and insist on “no” for the first question.

Now, there are other deeper questions here about the nature of cheating and about the justice of the procedure that USADA is using. These are, as you can imagine, tremendously interesting questions for me, but my concern here is simple: I don’t want those questions to cause us to shift our positions on (1), (2), and (3). I think doing so is unfair and unjust. In the end, I think that first the French anti-doping agency attacked him out of nationalistic jealousies, and now the USADA is doing it out of the same political zealotry that often motives special prosecutors – a culture of “always win your case.” People, having heard the accusations over and over again, have slowly started to believe them. But familiarity is not proof and there is still no proof. There are reports of alleged proof (the kind that Molly brings up), but reports of alleged proof are not the same thing as proof.
Eric: This is just one of a number of articles on this site that provides compelling data to back up my belief that Armstrong doped: 

Power output of Tour champions: What does it take to climb with the elite?The T...See More

Jack: Eric, I just read this quickly, I'll have to spend more time on it because it's not something I know that much about. But the thing that struck me the most was the notion that Lance couldn't improve to such a radical extent. This is exactly what the NBC commentators were saying about Michael Phelps this year during one of his races. They were actually suggesting he was doping while he was swimming. Clearly, he's not. So, it seems to me that the "not improve this much" argument is a way of minimizing spectacular achievements.

This doesn't count as evidence against the argument, mind you. Just something that stuck out when I skimmed it.

Eric: I'll be interested to see what you think once you cover the article in a bit more depth. The bit that damns Armstrong in my opinion is this:

It makes for some interesting reading - Greg Lemond averaged 5.7 W/kg on the final climbs during both his Tour wins. Then Indurain started off with an average power output of 5.3 W/kg, followed by 4.91 W/kg, and then it began to climb, so much so that when Indurain won his fifth Tour in 1995, his average power output on the final climbs of the mountain stages was an incredible 6.35 W/kg. (Just to labour the point - if you want to work out the ABSOLUTE power output for each rider, just multiply the power I've shown by the rider's mass. For Indurain, multiply by 80kg and you get a value of 508W)

That high power output was maintained for the next four years, Riis averaged 6.47 W/kg, Ullrich 6.33 W/kg, and then Marco Pantani set the 'record' when he averaged 6.63 W/kg during the 1998 Tour.

...However, we do know that Lance Armstrong's power output on Alp d'Huez in 2004 was calculated as 495W - this was presented as a scientific paper at the ACSM congress in Nashville in 2005, and I noticed the power output. It equates to 6.97 W/kg

Pantani, Riis, and Ullrich are all admitted EPO dopers. Riis (in)famously took his hematocrit into the low 70s, a percentage that has proven fatal to other athletes. When the normalized power numbers show that Armstrong is absolutely CRUSHING someone like Marco Pantani's best output when Pantani was known to be doped beyond the level that even cheaters of today would dare, how can a person keep believing? One full watt per kilogram, and then some. There is freak talent, and there is freak talent that uses EPO, CERA, HGH, testosterone, insulin, and autologous blood-packing. Armstrong was the latter. As many have said before, these aren't doping tests, they are IQ tests. Only the stupid get caught, and LA was never stupid, at least not that the public has been made aware.

Craig: Jack I had the same exact take away. If that's proof that he's guilty then Phelps, Bolt and whoever else has an amazing achievement is doping too. I also will reread that article because as a cyclist who's done all those climbs (cus I live in France:) I'm interested in that stuff.

Eric: Just to clarify, it's not that it's an amazing achievement that raises my suspicions. It's that it's an amazing achievement that, relative to *other known dopers*, is even more amazing than what people who were cheating were able to achieve. Pantani and Riis were doping themselves to levels that literally killed other riders, and Armstrong was *much* better than them. We don't have a known doper to compare Phelps or Bolt with. For better or worse, in cycling, we have a LOT of data to work with.

[update: August 25]

Eric: I just found this fantastic takedown of USADA *slash* justification of Armstrong's refusal to pursue arbitration:

Kangaroo court.

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1 comment:

  1. When considering the likelihood of a circumstantial case it may be important to weigh all the available evidence. Some things to consider,

    1. Advanced biochemists are rumored to be able to design PEDs and their antagonists (blood cleaners) sufficiently quickly so that for any given event there is a small chance of being caught.

    2. Dr. Ferrari was reputed to be one of the most advanced. That's in various sources from about 2000 to 2004.

    3. As a person who was once an "alternate replacement" for an Olympic squad I can attest that for years there have been places to go and people to see to strike Faustian bargains.

    Some statements with low truth values are considered necessary by public personnae, such as Bill Clinton's "... but I didn't inhale."

    Regarding interpreting the Armstrong situation and his protestations, may I recommend Hume's "An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding", the section "Of Miracles".