On Lance Armstrong

Why Sports Need Stronger Institutions

Last week at my son’s elementary school the teachers gathered the students for an important meeting. It seems that during the moments before the school’s doors open in the morning chaos and bickering were breaking out on the playground. The kids were trying to play the game of foursquare, but no one agreed on the rules of the game so the teachers intervened.

The rules of the games that we play are inventions. No one would confuse the offside rule in soccer with truths declared to be self-evident that underlie the laws and policies that govern society. Consequently if sport is going to work then someone has to enforce the rules. Recently, we have learned that some sports organizations are not up to the task of enforcing the rules.

Of late, much attention has been paid to Lance Armstrong as a flawed human being, however the larger tragedy is the systemic failure of the bodies that govern cycling. The use of prohibited performance enhancing drugs — doping — we have learned was pervasive throughout cycling. What was going on in the Tour de France and other races was not sport, but something else. As Armstrong explained to Oprah of his seven Tour de France yellow jerseys “The winning was almost phoned in.”

Cycling is similar to most Olympic sports in that its rules are established by an international non-governmental organization headquartered in Switzerland. Why Switzerland? More than a century ago the Swiss decided that they had a competitive advantage and since that time have attracted hundreds of governmental and non-governmental organizations, including sports associations such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA.

The bodies that failed spectacularly in the case of cycling include the International Cycling Union (UCI), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the various national cycling organizations responsible for hosting races and overseeing their athletes. None of these organizations was able to identify the systemic rule-breaking, much less bring the offenders to account. Armstrong explained to Oprah that he never worried about being caught.

The rot within cycling did not go unnoticed — cyclists Greg LeMond and Christophe Bassons, close observers Betsy Andreau and Emma Reilly, and journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage among others brought forth evidence of systematic rules violations. These individuals have now been vindicated, in some cases after much professional and personal suffering.

Why was the sports community unable to identify and correct the systematic violations within cycling? This is a question that will require honest and independent investigations. The answers will be uncomfortable and likely suggest the need for significant changes in how international sports are governed.
We can start to answer this question by understanding how it was that Lance Armstrong was finally caught.

Part of the story has to do with Armstrong being a US citizen. Some of the performance-enhancing drugs that he took are actually illegal under US laws. On this basis, the US Department of Justice initiated a grand jury investigation in 2010. The investigation was halted one year ago without explanation without charges being filed. However, by virtue of its legal standing the investigation was able to compel witnesses to testify under oath. And as Armstrong explained, “That’s very difficult to influence.”

In parallel the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) was conducting a different investigation. USADA was not exploring whether Armstrong had broken any laws, but rather, whether he had violated the rules prohibiting certain performance-enhancing drugs.

USADA has a unique status under US law. It is a non-governmental organization incorporated in the state of Colorado, yet it is recognized by the US Congress as the official body responsible for implementing US government responsibilities under the United Nations International Convention Against Doping in Sport. USADA also gets the majority of money from the US government and is expected by the US Congress to work with the US Olympic Committee, which is a “private federal corporation” established in US law.

Now if you find all this complicated, you are not alone. Academics and lawyers have argued for years over whether USADA is actually a “state actor” rather than a non-governmental organization, bound by the same rules as government agencies. So far at least, in several lawsuits brought on this question the US courts have judged USADA to be independent of the US government.

The most recent challenge occurred when Armstrong sued USADA last year in a US district court effort in a last-ditch effort to stop its investigation. Judge Sam Sparks declined to intervene, noting, “To hold otherwise would be to turn federal judges into referees for a game in which they have no place, and about which they know little.” He added, “this Court simply has no business telling national and international amateur athletic organizations how to regulate their respective sports.” In other words, sport needs to govern itself.

And so it did. The overwhelming case against Armstrong presented in USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” left no room for further denial, calling the systemic doping “more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history.”

At the helm of USADA is Travis Tygart, a man who deserves a lot of credit for a bulldogged approach to rooting out the rot in cycling against much opposition. However, the integrity of sport should not have to depend on heroic individuals to enforce the rules. Stronger institutions are needed.

We have learned in contexts well beyond sport that securing stronger institutions is not easy, as governments around the world operate under different laws and norms about what constitutes appropriate behaviors. Consequently, sports organizations are often left to tend to their own affairs regardless of how they perform. On many issues they take care of their business quite well. But as the case of cycling shows, there can be spectacular failures.

Cycling is not unique. Jens Sejer Andersen, international director of Play The Game, a sports governance watchdog in Denmark, testified before the EU Commission last month and warned that sports governance is at a “crossroad.” Citing troubling examples in the governance of football (soccer), volleyball, and handball, Andersen explained that “The old amateur structures have not been able to defend the best interests of sport against an invasion of people who use sport as a vehicle for fast, unethical and sometimes illegal business.”

The bottom line is that sports organizations and the governments which host them and their events need to improve governance and accountability in order to secure the continued success and legitimacy of the games that they oversee. Otherwise, the alternative will be chaos and bickering like unsupervised elementary school kids on a playground, and a diminishment of the games we love.