Paul Nitze: The Secrets of Armstrong
June 16, 2011
For those of you still mourning the cancellation of “Secrets of Aspen,” take off your veils. Aspen’s about to get a hit new reality show, starring Lance Armstrong, his handlers, a peloton of disgraced cyclists, and a few FBI agents.
Episode One was staged at Cache Cache last Saturday, where Armstrong and his old racing partner Tyler Hamilton had what both men describe as a chance encounter.
The Cache Cache bar is so dark it looks like an airplane cabin on backup lights, which may explain its popularity. Even so, the divergence in accounts of the Armstrong-Hamilton chest bump is wide. Jodi Larner, the restaurant’s owner (and Armstrong’s friend), says it was a “non-event.”
Hamilton, via his lawyer, has a radically different take. His lawyer says Armstrong told Hamilton, “We’re going to destroy you on the witness stand and we’re going to make your life a living hell.” And he claims that Larner told Hamilton’s group (mostly employees of Outside magazine) not to come back.
My advice? Don’t take either cyclist at his word. The FBI is said to be pursuing (silent) surveillance video from the restaurant, but we’re not likely to get much independent evidence of what happened. As far as the two cyclists’ credibility is concerned, let’s just say they’ve been dinged up a little.
Hamilton went on “60 Minutes” this May to admit that he doped systematically during his career, and that his dozens of statements to the contrary were lies. He has given up his 2004 gold medal in the Olympic time trial. Now he claims to be making a clean break with his past deception, and has implicated Armstrong, the most famous cyclist in history, as a longtime doper. Never mind that he stands to benefit financially from his allegations.
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Armstrong, on the other hand, may be the only man so narcissistic that he makes Tom Cruise look like a monk. He has now been implicated in blood doping by at least three former teammates. CBS reported, as part of its Hamilton interview, that the former head of the Swiss anti-doping laboratory told the FBI that Armstrong submitted a suspicious sample during the 2001 Tour du Suisse. Armstrong, who is admittedly under attack from all sides, comes across as someone relentlessly obsessed with image control at the expense of truth.
Now that Armstrong is spending most of his time in Aspen, expect that reporters and cameramen will be pitching camp for quite some time. Episode One was just a teaser for a much longer season. Armstrong has been caught up in the web of Jeff Novitzky, an agent for the Food and Drug Administration who has made it his mission to clean up professional sports.
Novitzky, who has also targeted Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, is routinely described as “relentless.” He was himself investigated for (and cleared of) misconduct during the Bonds investigation. Some say that he’s on a witch hunt. To those who criticize Novitzky’s messianic zeal, I say it’s the only way a high-profile case gets made.
Once in awhile that attitude gets officers into deep trouble and tears innocent lives apart. We had our own version of that story in Colorado when Tim Masters was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder. But zeal is what it takes to crack really hard cases. Eliot Ness didn’t take down Al Capone because he was paid to do it; he did it for pride and glory.
A related critique of the Armstrong investigation is that it has already sucked up millions of dollars in resources going after one exceptional athlete whose racing days are behind him. By my rough estimate, about a quarter of the reader comments on websites that have carried the latest Armstrong story can be summed up as follows: “Stop wasting my money on this sideshow.”
The BALCO investigation and Bonds trial cost in excess of $50 million, enough to fund the Aspen Police Department for more than ten years. Expect that if Armstrong is indicted (the case is still with a grand jury in Los Angeles), it will cost a similar amount to take it through a trial. Teams of agents in the U.S. and several European countries are working on the case.
If you think that’s a whole lot of money to spend on a case that involves nothing more than the integrity of one sport and the voluntary ingestion of illegal drugs, I’m with you. But it’s never about one defendant.
This week the Financial Times reported that suspicious trading activity in advance of UK mergers and acquisitions fell sharply in 2010, in the wake of high-profile insider trading cases in the U.S. and UK. Not a coincidence. Various reports from major league baseball’s own testing program (and home run stats) show that steroid use in baseball is way off after the Bonds prosecution. Not a coincidence either.
Armstrong is such a singular personality, and exceptional athlete, that any case against him will be portrayed as a vendetta. But we have always targeted the highest flyers selectively for prosecution, because it provides the biggest bang for the buck.
Doping among a small group of elite cyclists is not this country’s biggest problem. Not even close. Still, Novitzky is trying to make a case that could clean up a whole sport. That wouldn’t be the worst return on our money.