As the cheating is exposed, big companies count the cost

It wasn't about the bike and it wasn't all about Lance Armstrong. It was about the money. That's why it took so long for the big lie to surface.

Nike and other corporates this week ditched the cyclist so famous the world knows him by his first name. The asset so bankable for so long by so many is a bottomline liability now the secret that underpinned it is out.

The bubble that was Lance has burst; the market is adjusting, as markets do. Did Nike, Trek, Oakley and the other sponsors really have no clue? Or did the money blind them?

The bubble grew huge on his inspiring story of not only spectacularly defying cancer to dominate the world's best-known bike race but doing so on no more than bread and water.


The flaw in the inspirational tale is that he is a doper and maybe always was - evidence points to him doping on the US amateur junior team, as a professional pre- and post-cancer, during his retirement, his comeback and, lately, as a triathlete.

The lie survived so long because it served so many. Forbes magazine has estimated Armstrong's worth at about US$125 million ($153 million). Managers, trainers and doctors were enriched, the sponsors benefited enormously directly, as, indirectly, did the wider bike industry.

Sceptics were slapped down. Nike made a chiding commercial that concluded with the Texan eyeballing the camera: "What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?"

Livestrong has raised US$470 million for cancer awareness but the charity's good work also had the effect of a shield for its creator. A Livestrong lobbyist even rallied politicians to try to stymie the US Anti-Doping Agency.

It had always been the French that Armstrong said were out to get him, and it was the French that his legal and PR snipers smeared as anti-American. When the investigations came from agencies within, the Feds were painted as bounty hunters, USADA as witch burners.

The world cycling union, the UCI, joined Armstrong's federal court action to try to stop USADA. The UCI unsuccessfully claimed that it had jurisdiction. Fat chance of the evidence seeing light via its hand.

When Armstrong tested positive for corticosteroids while in the yellow jersey in the 1999 tour, the UCI eagerly accepted a concocted story about a saddle-sore cream supported by a back-dated prescription. It was the year after the Festina affair, the biggest doping scandal till then, and cycling needed to show lessons had been learnt. A dope cheat in yellow was just too unpalatable.

When retroactive testing on 1999 samples found six of Armstrong's positive for EPO, the UCI commissioned a report that was a whitewash. Nothing came of the blood-doping drug Actovegin being found with the team in 2000 and in 2004 a book with detailed evidence was dismissed by Hein Verbruggen, the UCI's president then - and honorary president now - even though he admitted he hadn't read it.

If evidence didn't bother the UCI, nor did conflicts of interest. It accepted a six figure donation "for anti-doping" from Armstrong who they were supposed to police. Recent testimony alleges the money was paid after Armstrong failed a dope test.

When Armstrong's former team-mate Tyler Hamilton claimed last year that the UCI did not take action on a positive Armstrong drug test, Verbruggen reacted angrily saying: "That's impossible, because there is nothing. I repeat again: Lance Armstrong has never used doping. Never, never, never."

As justification for the UCI not taking a case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Verbruggen's successor, Pat McQuaid, incorrectly told the Weekend Herald in 2006 that evidence had already been heard "and ultimately the judge found nothing credible against Armstrong". McQuaid did not respond to the Weekend Herald's email pointing out his errors.

In its "reasoned decision" this month, USADA said the UCI had prejudged evidence against Armstrong. That alone means Verbruggen and McQuaid have to go. Even the voice of the Tour de France, Phil Liggett, whose neck must be stiff from looking the other way, admits the case against Armstrong is proven.

Emma O'Reilly, Betsy Andreu, Christophe Bassons and Aucklander Stephen Swart, who spoke up at considerable cost, and Travis Tygart, the USADA head who did his job despite death threats, are among those who emerge with credibility.

Media profited from the myth but a rare few journalists did their craft proud in what is sport's Watergate. That makes Irish reporters David Walsh and Paul Kimmage the new Woodward and Bernstein.