Some sports fans believe that doping scandals are a meaningless distraction from what is essentially mindless entertainment. Others believe doping is anticompetitive, corrupts the essence of sport, and sends an unhealthy message to children.
The allegations made last week by disgraced erstwhile Tour de France champion Floyd Landis, however, break new ground. If we are to believe his account, doping is yet another branch of 2000s-era destructive Wall Street greed.
In 2006, Landis won the Tour de France, then unwon it after he was caught benefiting from synthetic testosterone. He spent a reported $2 million fighting the charge, successfully begging for $500,000 from supporters who believed his professions of innocence. Last week, he came clean, and in letters and newspaper interviews described 2002 doping excursions with his former U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team colleague, Lance Armstrong; team transfusion sessions designed to enrich the oxygen-carrying capacity of riders' blood; and a 2006 sponsorship deal in which a Swiss team paid for performance-enhancing drugs. (He also said he has run out of money and can't pay back his gullible fans.)
In naming managers of Armstrong's early-2000s U.S. Postal Service team and the Landis-led 2006 Swiss Phonak team, Landis indirectly implicated two San Francisco financial executives with a penchant for investing in bicycle racing and a familiarity with financial scandal. The U.S. team was part-owned by Thom Weisel, of the investment bank Thomas Weisel Partners. Weisel employee Jim Ochowicz, meanwhile, consulted with the Swiss team in 2006 — and Landis alleged last week that Ochowicz was complicit in team-sponsored doping there. Ochowicz has issued a statement denying the accusation; I have not received a response from a Thomas Weisel Partners spokeswoman seeking comment.
Weisel's bank is one of many that has had its image tarnished in recent years by stories of greed. In 2004, it was accused by then–New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer — who, before being disgraced in a sex scandal, was best known as a crusader against corruption in high finance — of producing dishonest stock research. The company paid $12.4 million to settle.
Taking the hardest immediate hit from the Landis allegations was AEG Sports, owned by San Francisco Examiner owner Phil Anschutz. Landis implicated last week's Tour of California race leader David Zabriskie and reigning Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer, and acknowledged that the race's only other winner — Landis himself — doped. Landis leveled his core accusations at the management of the team backing Armstrong, which is now sponsored by Radio Shack.
Landis' confession turned Anschutz' marquee event, the AEG-owned Tour of California, into a seeming doper freak show. Incidentally, in 2002 Spitzer accused Anschutz in a lawsuit of "fraudulent and illegal acts" for supposedly generating bogus stock research reports on his corporate holdings.
The financial shenanigans aren't linked to the doping ones. But they highlight the fact that Landis' allegations don't merely concern inappropriate lessons for children. What we have here is the sporting world equivalent of Wall Street's hocus pocus that sent the country into its worst recession since World War II. The only difference is that the illusory results were the products of dope, rather than doped-up stock research. If team directors really were behind a U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team doping operation, they could even be accused of defrauding the government. That's because team sponsorship contracts had a poison-pill clause allowing the Postal Service to immediately cease providing funding to the team in the event of management-involved doping.
At least one branch of the U.S. government seems to be taking the criminal angle seriously. Last week, The New York Times and the London Times reported that Jeff Novitzky, the FDA criminal investigator who helped bring down BALCO, is investigating Landis' claims. The case, in other words, has attracted the Spitzer of sporting fraud.
Given the source, Landis' claims are a tough chew. I own his now preposterous-seeming 2007 book, Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, in which he shamelessly describes how his Mennonite upbringing gave him a moral foundation that would never have led him to dope. And I was here when he came to San Francisco for a February 2007 book-tour-cum-shakedown session, in which he convinced supporters to give him money for legal bills. Landis made an odd charity case. Yet people gave.
Following that performance, taking your doping information from Landis is a bit like putting Starsky and Hutch's Huggy Bear on the witness stand; he's an impeachable source.
Yet Landis' new version of events seems more credible. His mea culpa resonates with the steady din of stories that have emanated from Armstrong's teams since he first won the Tour de France in 1999. And Landis' confession is not unique: Cycling's lesser lights have described similar episodes of systematic doping in top teams such as the German team, Telekom, the frequent runner-up during Armstrong's string of Tour wins. Landis, however, is the first former superstar and first ex-Armstrong confidant to describe in detail how the sport's top team doped athletes.
Landis describes in letters and in interviews with The New York Times and ESPN.com how, in 2002, Italian physician Michele Ferrari extracted a half-liter of Landis' blood to be transfused back into him during the Tour de France, to increase his stamina by boosting his oxygen-carrying red-blood-cell count.
"Mr. Armstrong was not witness to the extraction, but he and I had lengthy discussions about it," Landis wrote.
Ferrari had a reputation for training athletes who dope. According to a 2006 Bicycling article, he became close with Armstrong in 1998, as the cyclist was making a comeback from cancer, and established a working relationship with the Postal Service team. And author Dan Coyle, in his 2005 book, Lance Armstrong's War, describes watching Ferrari measure the blood chemistry of Armstrong, Landis, and teammate George Hincapie (who now rides for a team directed by Ochowicz, and whom Landis also fingered in last week's doping allegations).
In 1998, Italian police raided Ferrari's home, based on surveillance evidence suggesting he was a major supplier of EPO, the synthetic blood booster erythropoietin. Prosecutors used evidence from the raid to track down two doping cyclists who gave testimony against Ferrari. After one of the cyclists recanted, Ferrari was acquitted on charges of distributing doping products, a verdict that was reversed on appeal. Armstrong publicly hounded Filippo Simeoni, the cyclist who stood fast in his testimony; the American champion made an internationally televised "zip-the-lips" gesture toward him during the 2004 Tour de France.
During the Postal Service team's gravy years of Tour de France wins, half-damning doping allegations trailed behind. In 1999 Armstrong was accused of skirting a positive doping test with a fake doctor's note. In 2000, French authorities claimed the team's medical waste contained a blood-enriching product called Actovegin, currently in the news as police investigate NFL trainer Anthony Galea. A former Armstrong teammate testified under oath that in 1996, Armstrong acknowledged using EPO. And in 2005, the French sports newspaper L'Equipe produced evidence showing that a sample of Armstrong's urine taken during the 1999 Tour de France had subsequently tested positive for EPO. Armstrong was not sanctioned because these tests, conducted as experiments five years after the sample was originally drawn, did not allow for testing of a "B" sample to confirm the results.
In insisting that he is clean, Armstrong has noted that he has not failed any of hundreds of formal tests. But the same can be said for numerous perfect-test-record cyclists who have been caught out by police raids and investigations; biochemists hired by dopers tend to run five steps ahead of contemporary detection methods. A string of Armstrong teammates have been caught with dope in their bodies, including Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, Manuel Beltran, and Pavel Padrnos.
"There's a mafia in cycling," Hamilton said to Velo News in 2008 after failing, like Landis, in an aggressive bid to prove his innocence. "That's pretty much all I'll say about it; I'll probably get banned from a race if I say any more. But there is a mafia out there."
If it's true, as Landis claims, that team members were systematically doped with the help of team bosses Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel, the scandal could theoretically reach all the way to the S.F. Financial District.