"No Comment" is the New Doping

Aug 30 2012

Lance Armstrong looking grumpy at the start of a TT

Fine—I’ll just do non-ITU Triathlons / by Kevin Saunders, cc-by-nd

There’s an easy way to make a million people agree with you—present an argument that’s both simple and entirely compatible with their existing values.

An example: A man is suspected of burglary. He has left fingerprints near, but not at, a number of crime scenes, 11 friends are willing to testify against him, but the suspect has never been caught in the act of robbing a house. Should the state press charges?

It’s hardly a moral dilemma, and you’d certainly be hard-up to find many people who’d call it unjust. And yet, last Thursday a suspected burglar convicted doper effectively pled “no contest” after the authorities brought just such a charge, and in the process convinced millions that not only was this slam-dunk of a case a witch hunt, it was somehow “#unconstitutional” as well.

How, you ask, was this PR coup achieved? In part, because an obscure, faceless acronym came after a global celebrity and national hero with wonky, noodle-limp prose like “non-analytical positive”, and the global celebrity dictated the terms of the announcement (10pm EDT on a Thursday) to guaranteed he’d be the the primary source for anyone reporting on or looking for the story. The global celebrity’s website even crashed, prompting dozens of others to regurgitate his side of the story for him.

THEY are coming to take things away from YOU.

THEY are coming to take things away from YOU.

But that much was almost unavoidable. What could—and I think should—have at least mitigated the flood of criticism against the sanction would have been a united front among the People Who Know Things About Cycling. The sources that the few mainstream reporters who still care to get expert commentary and insight might turn to to flesh out their stories.

Instead, what did Bicycling have waiting on the front page? Bill Strickland’s hand-wringing meditations on “justice” and the utterly irrelevant topic of what would happen to the jerseys? Joe Lindsey—the same Joe Lindsey who just took mainstream sports columnists to task for their limp-wristed defense of Armstrong—not mentioning Armstrong’s name once in a full transcript of his interview on doping and US Postal with Jon Vaughters.

After Armstrong took his ball and went home, things hardly improved. Velonews certainly didn’t give a lot of push-back to Carmichael or Ochowitz or anyone in the AFP Armstrong reaction piece they ran. And My jaw is still on the floor that someone with as much alleged expertise as John Wilcockson would say something as flatly idiotic as “On an even field, where no one was enhancing his performance in any way, Armstrong would have likely won all seven of his Tour titles.”

No, as is the style in this sport these days, the actual calls for accountability and incisive questions were once again left to the amateurs—to frame builders, to scientists, to web developers and other people with zero access to cyclists or the mainstream press.

But as much as I like to excoriate the cycling media, it’s not their fault. The problem here starts with the riders and coaches who offer watery non-responses about the “best athlete” or “earning victories”, or who simply say “no comment”. If the people covering the sport didn’t have a reasonable expectation of being stonewalled—or worse, blacklisted—when they ask pertinent questions, a few more of them might be asked.

Furthermore, if the clean cyclists who benefit from a transparent sport can’t summon the chutzpah to state what they actually think about the Armstrong case, what good are the dope controls in the first place? There’s dangerously little space between a code of silence that hides your own doping, and a code of silence that protects the doping of others.

It was Johan Bruyneel who came the closest to the truth in his reaction to the Armstrong sanction, albeit completely unintentionally. He’s right that this development can’t erase history, or rewrite it, or correct its mistakes. While you can monkey about with results lists on Wikipedia pages, the races happened the way they did and nothing can change that.

Where Johan is wrong is that these investigations aren’t really about deletions or asterisks, or even “justice”—whatever you think that means. They’re about bringing facts to light, because people, whether they’re casual Armstrong supporters or 14 year-olds dreaming of future Tour de france glory, deserve to know.

After all, the thousands venting Internet Rage at USADA aren’t idioits—they’ve been presented with a jarring event—fall of a hero—and are totally uninformed about the facts behind it. The only talking point they’ve had reliable exposure to is “never failed a drug test”.

If no one professionally involved in cycling is willing to stand up with similarly uniform and retweetable rebuttal, what other reaction can you expect the public to have?

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