This week seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong received the letter he hoped would never come.
The United States Anti-Doping Agency, which regulates Olympic and many amateur sports, told him they would recommend that charges be filed against him for using and trafficking performance enhancing substances. They claim to have results from blood samples taken in 2009 and 2010 that indicate he was involved in blood doping. While these are not criminal charges, he could have his Tour de France victories vacated and be banned from participating in cycling or the triathlons in which he currently competes.
The USADA says they have at least 10 witnesses who claim to have seen him engaging in blood doping. Cyclist Tyler Hamilton made such claims on "60 Minutes" several years ago. Blood doping uses natural compounds like the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) which signals the body to make more red blood cells. This gives an athlete an advantage in speed and endurance by boosting oxygen transportation throughout the body. The margin of victory in most sports is so narrow that a blood doping athlete gets an unfair competitive advantage.
Armstrong has been a venerated athlete. Not only did he dominate the world competition in a sport which Europe specializes in but he has been a powerful role model. He survived testicular cancer and went on to unbelievable athletic achievement. He has led a scandal free life. He created the Livestrong Foundation and movement in raising cancer awareness and funding which has had a major impact. Thousands of his wristbands are worn daily. And these charges threaten his legacy.
For the last 40 years I have encouraged athletes to utilize their high profile to trigger imitative behavior, especially with adolescents. I have seen the impact that Lennox Lewis had when he did a public service campaign that said "real men don't hit women" or Oscar De La Hoya and Steve Young with their "prejudice is foul play" PSA. My clients have raised over $700 million dollars for charities and community programs around the country. This profile can do wonderful things for the world, but when it is associated with negative behavior it can send the wrong message. It would be harmful to all the fans of Armstrong if the allegations are true.
Adolescents confront the temptation to use performance enhancing substances on a daily basis. High school athletes are urged to be "bigger, stronger and faster." They are inherently competitive and focused on short-term performance, not long-term health.
Other young men get addicted to the weight room experience and the desire to remake their bodies. Both groups can turn to steroids or supplements if they are not properly educated. The physical danger inherent in long-term steroid use will manifest itself increasingly as athletes age. There is a severe emotional and behavioral roller coaster that can result.
In the 80s in the NFL, I argued with clients against steroid use. They often experienced intense anger – "roid rage" – and they would become depressed after a cycle was over. We had wives complain and one client killed himself. That is why everyone associated with the NFL supported a ban and testing. There was none of the denial and labor-management argument that occurred in Major League Baseball – we saw it as a matter of life and death.
The problem with supplements that are sold to enhance body building and performance in nutrition and vitamin stores throughout the country is that they are not regulated by the FDA. They can contain speed-like substances which alter behavior. The combination of the supplements that are taken may have negative synergistic effects and there is no way to verify purity. This practice is like playing Russian Roulette with a body as a test tube.
While I hope that Armstrong did not engage in blood doping, which includes transfusing more oxygenated blood prior to competition, I know that players have evidenced a great capacity to use technology to frustrate testing. Please be careful with your own bodies and long-term health and be vigilant in safeguarding your children.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.