On Sunday evening, 60 Minutes aired a long segment on the ongoing investigation into whether Lance Armstrong, the 7-time champion of the Tour de France, used performance enhancing drugs.
Armstrong, a cancer survivor, philanthropist, and American hero, has always denied using drugs, even as cycling has been revealed to be riddled with blood doping and Armstrong’s teammates have come forward and said that he did it. The 60 Minutes story revealed that two of Armstrong’s closest teammates, Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie, have now testified to a grand jury that they saw Armstrong use performance-enhancing drugs.
Hamilton also said that, contrary to Armstrong’s claim that he has never failed a drug test, Armstrong actually did fail one in 2001–in a Swiss race leading up to that year’s Tour de France. Hamilton believes that the International Cycling Union persuaded the testing organisation to ignore the test.
The Hamilton and Hincapie testimony is the strongest evidence yet that Armstrong broke the rules, and Hamilton’s 60 Minutes appearance was made more credible by his repeatedly pointing his finger at the sport of cycling and himself as well as at Armstrong. Hamilton described a sport in which it would have been impossible to win without doping because everyone was doping. He also made clear how many jobs and careers depended on Armstrong’s remaining “clean.” If the Swiss test hadn’t been disappeared, Hamilton said, the US Postal Service team would have been finished, and his job and 50-60 other jobs would have been lost.
The government appears to be building a case that Lance Armstrong and other team-members defrauded the US government by saying they were clean when they weren’t in order to get sponsorship money from the US Postal Service. It’s not clear what the government’s ultimate goals are, but they appear to include cleaning up the sport of cycling, proving that Lance Armstrong has lied, and cracking down even more strongly on the use of performance enhancing drugs.
The Armstrong investigation is not popular: The country faces much bigger problems that the government seems unwilling to do anything about, and few people want to see a hero taken down (or admit they want this). But investigators seem deeply committed to seeing this investigation through.
After last night’s 60 Minutes story, even those who want to believe Lance Armstrong will have a hard time continuing to do so. So it’s likely that, regardless of what happens with the investigation and prosecution, Armstrong’s accomplishments and legacy will be permanently tainted.
As for the investigation, with the testimony of Hamilton, Hincapie, and other Armstrong teammates, the government probably has enough evidence to indict Armstrong for something (possibly, fraud against the government for claiming to be clean, though this will depend on the wording of exactly what he said).
Whether the government has enough to convict him, however, is an open question. Given that Hamilton, Floyd Landis, and other former team-mates apparently lied under oath in former testimony (denying that they had doped), they should be relatively easy witnesses to impeach.
Given Armstrong’s stance to date, it seems likely that he’ll fight any charges the government brings unless he thinks he has no chance at all of winning.
If he fights, and if his former teammates are now telling the truth about him, Lance Armstrong may lose a chance to, once again, do something extraordinarily difficult and admirable: Come clean and accept the consequences. And then to use his prodigious fame, charm, tenacity, and skill to help his sport put the doping era behind it.