Floyd Landis must pine for the day when the Tour de France stood as the most challenging marathon of his life. But victory in the 2006 Tour proved to be just the beginning—almost 10 months now and still counting—of an even more daunting challenge: to defend himself against charges that he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs after a critical stage of the race and, as a result, should be stripped of his title.
This week, after steadfastly proclaiming his innocence and mounting an exhaustive public defense, the 31-year-old Landis finally gets his day in court. In this case, the court is a large room at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, Calif., a rather idyllic setting for what has been a nasty and, at times, squalid fight. He and his defense team are squaring off against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) before an arbitration panel, which is then likely to take another few weeks to rule. Whether the panel upholds the finding that Landis cheated or vindicates the cyclist, the judgment is almost certainly to be appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
Landis, of course, has been considered down and out before and is experienced with long, uphill battles. After Stage 16 of last year's Tour, when he had lost more than 10 minutes to the leader, nobody gave him a chance to succeed Lance Armstrong, on whose team he once rode, as champion. Then came his heroic effort in Stage 17, when he blew away the field with a comeback unprecedented in the long, illustrious history of cycling's premiere event. His stunning, breakaway run—124 miles through steep climbs and hairpin turns in the Alps—brought him back within 30 seconds of the leader. A few days later he would claim the lead and the yellow jersey for his triumphant ride into Paris. But it was on that extraordinary day, following his miracle run, that Landis would fail his drug test, allegedly showing abnormally high levels of testosterone. And despite initial speculation by Landis that he might produce that result naturally, or that it was perhaps some byproduct of alcohol, the testosterone proved to be synthetic and not so easily explicable.
The Olympic family of sports has become far more aggressive than pro sports leagues in pursuit of drugs cheats. And with increased resources and tools, fueled by government and fan outrage, they boast some recent successes, including an eight-year ban against American sprinter Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 100 meters. Their effort has been bolstered by a new willingness of sports authorities to accept what is called a "non-analytical positive," meaning evidence of doping without the athlete having failed a drug test. Recently, the International Olympic Committee issued a lifetime ban against six Austrian cross-country skiers who competed at last year's Torino Games. Though none of them tested positive for drugs, the expulsion was based on evidence seized in a raid on their Olympic housing quarters.
In order to compete, athletes in Olympic sports are required to agree to this arbitration process, one in which USADA has yet to lose a case. The Landis team has mounted an expansive and expensive three-pronged attack against the charges. The first was Landis's repeated insistence that he did not take any illegal drugs. Denial is a necessary component of any defense, but by itself it is hardly convincing; virtually every athlete who has failed a drug test has initially proclaimed his or her innocence, a claim that seldom stands up. Next, Landis's team has attacked the science itself, using its own analysts to challenge the methods, procedures and conclusions of the French lab that conducted the tests.
Finally, it is also attacking the lab's motives and its credibility, part of what Landis regards as an unethical campaign mounted against him by antidoping authorities. Not only was news of the failed test leaked to the French sports newspaper L'Equipe, in violation of established antidoping procedures, but prominent figures in the movement—most notably, Canada's Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency—went public with their judgments long before all the testing procedures were completed, treating the case against Landis as a slam dunk.
Frankly, it is impossible for any layman, let alone this reporter who long ago failed both "Rocks for Jocks" and "Physics for Poets" in college, to assess the highly technical scientific arguments. But there's no doubt Landis has legitimate grievances about the premature pronouncements that tarnished him publicly before all the evidence was in. While Armstrong has formal no role in these proceedings, his fans recall Lance's own battles against allegations, rumors and innuendos—often stemming from what he saw as an unholy alliance between the French lab and the national sports daily, L'Equipe.
All this has been enough to embarrass the antidoping crusaders, prompting some promise of immediate reforms in procedures and future restraint. But winning the public relations battle is unlikely to be enough to carry the day for Landis. And USADA comes armed, its lead lawyer said during opening arguments, with far more evidence than just that of Landis's single failed drug test. He said retroactive tests conducted on samples collected from Landis during the race revealed that he tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone an additional seven times.
A win for Landis in arbitration would be an even bigger surprise than his triumph in France last summer. For his sport, though, it might be a Pyrrhic victory. Cycling seems to be pedaling its way to extinction. More than 100 riders, including cycling's biggest names, have been linked by authorities to a Spanish doping scandal. Race and team sponsors have been fleeing the sport, and already some prominent races, including the Championship of Zurich that had been held for more than century, have been canceled as a result. Television ratings for cycling, once extremely popular in Europe, have plummeted.
Things are so bleak in cycling that even a Landis victory in arbitration may not have enough impact to reverse the trend. That should stand as a chastening lesson those who are entrusted with the future of any sport. Betray your fan's trust at your own peril. No sport, no matter how popular it is in this moment, is guaranteed immortality. In the age of the instant message, fans can turn on you in a nanosecond—and cycling may discover that they may not ever turn back.