Column: Armstrong's titles? Whole era is worthless
It surely would be have been more useful for his sport if Tyler Hamilton hadn't waited until this week to tell us what he knows about doping in the Lance Armstrong era.
But, on the other hand, better late than never. Because Hamilton, a former Tour de France teammate and later rival of Armstrong's, knows more than most.
His dope-and-tell book set for release Wednesday is important not so much because of what Hamilton tells us about Armstrong's own alleged doping but because - like ex-doper David Millar's biography last year - it smashes the code of silence that cyclists of their era lived by and kept their rampant drug-taking largely hidden from public view for far too long.
Both Hamilton and Millar's books should sober up those opinion-makers who have developed a ho-hum attitude to doping in sports, and especially those who argue that since it cannot be eradicated, perhaps it should be accepted and even legalized. Why continue to spend taxpayers' money trying to catch dopers and unmask people like Armstrong? If athletes want to pour poison into their veins, let them. Why should we care?
How ridiculous. Criminal even. Anyone in his right mind should conclude that anti-doping efforts must be redoubled, not abandoned, compromised or sniffed at, after reading Millar and now Hamilton explain in their own words the horrors they experienced.
Not merely the injections. Those, after all, are simply the mundane practicalities of doping. No, most shocking in both their accounts is how they concluded separately that they had no choice but to dope, that cycling was so rife with drug-taking that the only way for them to continue and to succeed in the sport was to become rotten, too.
That is what the legalizers and the shoulder shruggers don't get. If doping were permitted or largely ignored, in other words if we all didn't care, then all athletes with an ounce of ambition would have to do it. Giving them freedom to dope or looking the other way would, in effect, mean they have no freedom at all. Spending millions on anti-doping is worthwhile not only to catch some if not all dopers but, perhaps more important, so that the majority of other athletes can feel that they don't necessarily have to dope to win. It's protection money.
In ''The Secret Race,'' Hamilton recounts that it took him about 1,000 days of riding clean as a rookie professional to reach the opposite conclusion, to cave in and take drugs to keep up with the other riders who were doping. He started by swallowing a capsule of testosterone - ''a tiny red egg'' - and later graduated to injecting the hormone EPO and storing and transfusing bags of his own blood to boost his endurance, performance and recovery.
''Yes or no. In or out. Everybody has their thousand days; everybody has their choice,'' Hamilton says.
Millar, too, resisted for a while, riding clean in this same era of cycling with two speeds, where those who doped overpowered holdouts who, for whatever reason, didn't.
In ''Racing Through The Dark,'' Millar says that by 2001 he, too, ''accepted that it was easier to dope than not to dope.''
Jonathan Vaughters, another former teammate of Armstrong's, says he doped because it was either that or renounce his dream of riding the Tour de France in this era when cycling's rules against doping were dead letters, largely unenforced or unenforceable because a test for EPO wasn't validated until 2000 and because then, as now, there was no single test to spot self-transfusions.
''When I was racing in the 1990s and early 2000s, the rules were easily circumvented by any and all and if you wanted to be competitive, you first had to keep up,'' Vaughters wrote this August in The New York Times. ''This environment is what we must continuously work to prevent from ever surfacing again. It destroys dreams. It destroys people. It destroys our finest athletes.''
Hamilton's accounts of doping with Armstrong when they rode together for the U.S. Postal team are the headline generators for his book. Armstrong points to hundreds of drug tests he says he passed in arguing that he won his record seven Tour titles legitimately. Readers can make up their own minds whom to believe.
The gruesome details of Hamilton's doping also make his book a page turner. Hamilton recounts, for instance, how he urinated blood at the 2004 Tour after poisoning himself with a transfusion of blood that had been improperly stored and gone bad.
And, for both Millar and Hamilton, success while doping seems to have brought little or zero satisfaction.
''While you smiled on the surface, underneath you squirmed,'' Hamilton writes.
''The more I doped, the more I hated cycling,'' says Millar. ''I may have been able to win bigger races but I'd never felt less joy in doing so.''
Cycling's governing body, the UCI, must now decide whether to endorse the decision by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour victories and all his other race results since Aug. 1, 1998, following its assertions that he doped and conspired with others to conceal it. Hamilton was among those USADA interviewed.
Whether the UCI has the stomach to put the boot into Armstrong remains to be seen. But, ultimately, whether it accepts USADA's findings or not seems less important than the bigger picture that Millar, Vaughters, disgraced 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis and now Hamilton have belatedly revealed to us - that the sport was putrid.
That era is worthless.
It would have been better if Hamilton had told us the truth at the time.
But at least we know now.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester