Dial-a-Denial, And Why The Game Might Be Up

May 24 2010

No public figure in recent memory has been more well-managed under scrutiny than Lance Armstrong. Sure, hero status gives him a leg up, but there’s real brilliance in how his inner circle handles accusations; on every battlefield he’s fought, Armstrong has always made the issue his accusers, and not their accusations. I’ve compiled a fun little chart to illustrate the point:

(click image for larger sizes, buy a wall poster, full list of sources)

Starting at the twelve o’clock position, the Armstrong quotes run clockwise in chronological order, from his 1999 exchange with Christophe Bassons to his lastest barrage against Floyd Landis. Along the bottom of the chart, the deflection intensity is assessed using a points system for anyone interested in actually playing this as a PR game.

Perhaps the best example of The Armstrong Approach came from the ostensibly anonymous and retroactively sampled EPO “positives” from 1999. Armstrong’s response was unbelievably comprehensive, calling into question the journalistic integrity of the investigation, the scientific honesty of the lab, the legal possibility of a positive test under the rules, and even the scientific fundamentals behind the test. Armstrong managed to address every issue—except for whether or not his ’99 samples tested positive for EPO.

In reality, electrophoresis is an extremely reliable lab technique, samples are almost impossible to spike, the rules are clear that a positive test requires A/B sampling, and, at any rate, the inquiry commissioned to suss out any potential penalties had their report leaked in the Dutch press—not that it stopped Armstrong from declaring victory.

However, a great deal of the effectiveness of Armstrong’s strategy has been that it’s played so sweetly in the mainstream, English Language press. After all, plenty of ink—yes, real ink!—has been spilled by Continental publishers in books compiling the allegations against Armstong. Only when it came time to port LA Confidentiel into English did David Walsh find himself drowning in a sea of rejection letters.The Texan’s unassailable public persona is a purely American phenomenon.

And why not? Armstrong’s opponents have been transatlantic adversaries with weird names (“Jean Francois so-and-so”, as Armstrong dubbed a hypothetical lab worker) who are angry an American is so good at “their” race. They’ve relied on complicated-sounding science and byzantine testing procedures. Besides, Armstrong has never tested positive—and the possibility of a false-negative is a media non-starter.

This time, though, things may be different. There’s no tricky science. There are no strange-sounding labs. The primary accuser, Floyd Landis is an American. He’s a guy most of us cheered for, at least for a bit. And while he’s been discredited, that only gives him the ability to be redeemed—a plotline no sportswriter can pass up. And (more on this later) the arguments that he’s got an ax to grind are at best weak, and at worst fabricated.

Finally—and I think most significantly—doping cases from mainstream American sports are starting to appear and get traction. Yes, non-USADA controls are a teenage babysitter posing as a prison guard, but they’ve still managed to nab a naughty child or two. And as any cycling fan can tell you, once you get your head around the idea that one of your heros is a cheat, it’s not too tough to imagine that the rest of them might be too.

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