Performance-Enhancing Drugs: The Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal

From a lecture series presented by Professor Elizabeth Murray, Ph.D.

America’s most well-known cyclist of the recent past is, no doubt, Lance Armstrong. Born in Texas, Armstrong turned pro in 1992 at age 21, and within the next few years, won major competitions, including stages within the Tour de France. Few foresaw the disgraceful path his career would soon take, tainted by the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs.

Photo of Lance Armstrong for article on Performance-Enhancing Drugs
Lance Armstrong, 2002

Lance Armstrong Becomes an Icon

Shortly after Armstrong’s 1996 Olympic performance, his athletic career had to be put on hold when he was diagnosed with stage-three testicular cancer. Armstrong underwent surgery and successful treatment, despite cancer already having traveled to his brain, lungs, and abdomen. And, incredibly, by the late ’90s, he was not only back into competitive cycling, but began a series of seven consecutive first-place wins in the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005.

Learn more: Blood Doping and Other Sports Scandals

Armstrong announced his retirement from the sport in the summer of 2005, only to make a comeback in 2009, taking third place in that year’s Tour de France.

In early 2011, Armstrong retired again, but this time under a cloud of shame. After years of denying claims he had used performance-enhancing drugs, in 2012 Armstrong was accused by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency of being part of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

Learn more: Sport and Performance Psychology

Signs Before The Scandal

Photo of Lance Armstrong, 1999
Lance Armstrong, 1999

Now, while allegations had been bantered around for years, the first highly-publicized suspicion involving Armstrong dates to 1999 when his urine tested positive for corticosteroids during preliminary drug testing for the Tour de France. Although made naturally by our adrenal glands, the subclass of corticosteroids known as glucocorticoids are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Glucocorticoids are natural, anti-inflammatory hormones that also help us regulate protein and carbohydrate metabolism, as well as electrolyte balance. Glucocorticoid hormones are banned if suspected to be from an exogenous source, in other words, in levels higher than the body itself could normally produce.

To explain the positive test result, Armstrong’s team doctor produced a prescription for a steroid ointment he said was used to treat a saddle-sore Armstrong had developed. Though most of Armstrong’s associates didn’t fall for the story, the governing body for international cycling races, known as the UCI, did believe the doctor’s claim and let Armstrong continue with the race.

It’s now known, through sworn testimony at the Anti-Doping Agency’s hearing, that the team physician backdated the prescription. Armstrong’s personal assistant and massage therapist also stated she never knew anything about a saddle-sore ointment, and if that treatment had been ordered, she would have been the one to apply it. In her testimony, this assistant also described having to dispose of used syringes and once having to use her makeup to cover an injection bruise on Armstrong’s arm.

Learn more: The Dangerous Pursuit of the Ideal Body

Close Calls

Model of Erythropoietin
Erythropoietin is an essential hormone for red blood cell production.

Another hormone that’s been used by athletes is erythropoietin, also known as EPO. Erythropoietin is made by the kidneys to increase red blood cell production in bone marrow. Since red cells deliver oxygen to muscles, the use of EPO ultimately enhances endurance.

Athletes got away with EPO use for years because there was no blood screen capable of detecting the pharmaceutical versions, that is, until 2000, when the French National Anti-Doping Agency developed a test for synthetic EPO.

During the hearings that Armstrong later faced, many of his teammates admitted to using EPO and testified that he did too. Riders were taught by the team doctor to inject it directly into their veins, not under their skin, and to get rid of their syringes in empty soda cans.

Teammates also claimed Armstrong helped supply them not only with EPO, but also testosterone, human growth hormone, and other banned substances that he pressured them to use. Armstrong and other team members even engaged in blood transfusions, or rather, re-infusions of their own blood that they had previously extracted from each other.

They hung blood bags from picture hooks in hotels or in the team van along the roadside while the driver faked engine difficulty. Some cyclists recalled the icy chill of the cold blood as it entered their veins or dumping drugs into the commode on the team’s camper when they thought the police were about to raid them.

Learn more: Real Crime Scenes: The Evidence Speaks

On one occasion, Armstrong suddenly dropped out of a race in Spain; that was because a teammate texted him a heads up that testing officials were waiting at his hotel. There were so many near misses when Armstrong wasn’t caught, like the time a team physician diluted the cyclist’s tainted blood using an IV bag of saline the doctor smuggled under his coat and into Armstrong’s bedroom, walking right past the drug inspector setting up his blood-testing station in the apartment living room.

Creating the Case Against Armstrong

Photo of Lance Armstrong 2010
Lance Armstrong 2010

Eventually, the forensic evidence used by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in the summer of 2012 included lab reports from blood samples taken during Armstrong’s 2009 to 2010 comeback, as well as emails, photographs, and financial documents, including forensic accounting records detailing payments of over a million dollars to one of the team’s physicians.

The agency ultimately amassed more than 1,000 pages of testimony from 26 different witnesses, including 11 of Armstrong’s cycling teammates who decided to break their code of silence and come forward. Armstrong was not only indicted by the agency for using banned substances but also drug possession and trafficking, among other offenses. They also brought charges against the team’s director, trainer, and three doctors.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued what they called a “reasoned decision in the matter and submitted it to the UCI international cycling organization. By the fall of 2012, Armstrong was stripped of all medals he had accumulated between the years 1998 and 2010, which included all his Tour de France victories. He was permanently banned from participation in any future professional competitions.

Law enforcement authorities didn’t file criminal charges, though, probably because, in the words of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the UCI didn’t have any official record of Armstrong failing drug tests. Their position was that this also implicated the UCI for aiding in what the agency believed was a long-standing cover-up. In other words, that Armstrong should have been caught long ago, and probably was, but his blood doping went ignored by nearly all of cycling, especially the international union.

Armstrong refused to respond or even request a hearing to challenge the charges. Eventually, though, in early 2013, during an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong finally admitted to the world that he had been involved in the use of performance-enhancing drugs. However, the cyclist alleges he stopped doping in 2005 at the time of his first retirement and that his comeback wins, in and after 2009, were unaided by banned substances.

I don’t think many people believe that.

Keep reading:
The Scandalous History of Baseball
Modern Crime: The Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding Story

From the Lecture Series: Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals
Taught by Professor Elizabeth A. Murray, Ph.D.
Images courtesy of:
Lance Armstrong, By Paul Coster [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Lance Armstrong MidiLibre 2002, By de:Benutzer:Hase (Self-photographed) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tour de France 2010, lance, By filip bossuyt from Kortrijk, Belgium (5706 lance) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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