As you may have noticed, Lance Armstrong and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) are in the early stages of a King Kong versus Godzilla death match. It started on June 12, when USADA announced that it intends to strip Armstrong of the seven Tour de France titles he won between 1999 and 2005, on the grounds that he and several others—including the notorious Italian physician Dr. Michele Ferrari—engaged in a massive doping conspiracy during Armstrong’s years as lead rider for the U.S. Postal Service team.
Yesterday, Armstrong’s legal team fired back with a lengthy complaint to the federal district court in Austin, Texas, asking a judge to prevent USADA from pursuing its case or punishing Armstrong in any way. Hours later, Judge Sam Sparks dismissed the suit, citing its length and argumentative style, but said Armstrong could refile within 20 days and try again. However this battle plays out, the stakes are immense because Armstrong is challenging foundational principles that USADA relies on as it tries to punish athletes who it believes have broken the rules.
USADA’s recent actions are an attempt to pick up the pieces left behind last winter, after a long-running investigation conducted by the FDA, the FBI, and the Justice Department ended with a fizzle. The U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles dropped the case without bringing any charges against Armstrong, and many of his detractors were enraged: Once again, it seemed, Teflon Lance was going to escape sporting justice. For 15 years, suspicion had swirled around him, but he’d never been held to account.
Many of these same people have been cheering USADA as it waves its sword, but I’ve been appalled by the recent outpouring of glee. This doesn’t mean I’m an Armstrong fan or that I think he’s innocent. I’ve covered sports doping for years, and I was convinced long ago that he cheated, even before former Postal riders Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton gave extensive and credible statements about how the team’s doping program worked.
But it’s not the what of this case that bothers me, it’s the how. Ends do not always justify means, and sometimes, in order to preserve higher values, you have to let guilty parties walk. In this instance, I’m less concerned about proving that Lance’s yellow jerseys are smudged than with the fact that USADA keeps mutating into what looks like a law-enforcement body, which it isn’t.
USADA, which participated in the federal investigation, isn’t part of the U.S. government and isn’t a judicial body. Newspaper stories tend to shorthand it as a “quasi-governmental” entity, but that’s not accurate. USADA is a private non-profit corporation hired to manage the anti-doping program for American athletes who hope to participate in the Olympics as well as various local, regional, national, and international competitions. And it’s gotten out of control.
Among other things, USADA runs the adjudication process when athletes fail a drug test, and it’s here where things become murky. Armstrong never failed a test that we know of, but relying on language written into the World Anti-Doping Code, the governing rules used by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and all national affiliates like USADA, the corporation is pursuing Armstrong on the basis of a so-called “non-analytical positive”—which means evidence, such as testimony and documents, that he doped. Using this material, USADA convinced a review board to formally charge Armstrong on June 30.
It’s this cluster of murkily defined powers that should trouble not just sports fans, but any citizen. It’s also what angers Armstrong’s lawyers, and their complaints can’t be laughed off. In a letter sent on June 22 by Armstrong’s legal team to the USADA Review Board, his lawyers accused USADA of criminal conduct, abuse of power, “arrogant disregard of federal law,” “acting outside the scope of its jurisdiction,” and “concealing information.” In the federal court filing, Armstrong accused USADA of believing itself “above the United States Constitution, above the law, above court review, free from supervision from any person or organization, and even above its own rules.”