The rightful destination of the seven yellow jerseys taken from Lance Armstrong on Monday will never be clear. In the absence of obviously dope-free Tour de France podium finishers from those years, they might as well go to the most shamefully forgotten people in this scandal. The jerseys can be draped, one apiece, over the graves of seven European cyclists who died young and mysteriously in 2003 and 2004.
The eldest was 35, the youngest 16. A couple of them were retired. Two died in their sleep, one in a race. One was a patient in a psychiatric hospital when he collapsed. Another had just left the dentist's office. All died within a 13-month span.
About 15 years earlier, around the time that the red cell-boosting drug EPO surfaced as a performance enhancer, there had been a similar wave of cyclists whose hearts stopped suddenly. Responsible doctors set off alarms, saying unsupervised use of the drug could thicken the blood to the point that it could no longer circulate through the body. A test to detect extraordinarily high red-blood-cell levels was developed. The deaths ebbed. In early 2004, alarms sounded again, set off this time by European journalists.
In the United States that year, as Armstrong prepped for the sixth of his seven Tour victories, nobody cared. He had beaten cancer and conquered the Alps. He was dating Sheryl Crow. The dead guys were nobodies.
The seventh cyclist, 21-year-old Johan Sermon of Belgium, died in his sleep just three days after U.S. prosecutors indicted four men, including Barry Bonds' personal trainer, on multiple counts of distributing performance-enhancing drugs. Two weeks later, I wrote a column in the San Francisco Chronicle questioning the federal government's relative apathy about the miraculous Armstrong, whose medical trainer had been indicted on doping charges in Italy, whose team was sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service and whose sport had a disturbing number of fatalities.
Armstrong's camp was livid. His agent, Bill Stapleton, called my sports editor, Glenn Schwarz, and demanded multiple corrections. One of them concerned the number of deaths. According to Glenn, Stapleton said that I should have counted only six mysterious fatalities because the body of Marco Pantani, the 1998 Tour de France champion found dead in an Italian hotel room, had revealed cocaine use.
Glenn told the agent that he and I had already discussed the number. The European papers had set the figure at eight. I had taken Pantani off the list. When Glenn and I talked later, I asked if Stapleton seemed to care about the deaths aside from the doubts they raised about the integrity of his star client's sport. No, Glenn said, he did not.
Messages left at Stapleton's office on Monday, seeking current comment from the agent, were not returned.
A few weeks later, Armstrong wrote a rebuttal essay that appeared in the Chronicle. He defended his sport’s drug tests. He praised, of all things, USADA – the organization that ultimately took him down. He never mentioned the seven dead guys.
He could have made a lot of points about them. When he wrote that his indicted trainer deserved the benefit of "innocent until proven guilty,'' Armstrong could have noted that I had, in effect, defiled the reputations of the dead cyclists by suggesting they had doped. He did not.
They were irrelevant to him. They were irrelevant to almost everyone.
The conventional wisdom among Armstrong's defenders holds that doping is a victimless crime and that only righteous prudes care about it. That wisdom is built on willful ignorance.
We have no idea how doping affects athletes, because we have no idea what they take, how much of it or for how long. They won't tell. Researchers won't run clinical trials because giving test subjects the amount of drugs believed to help performance would be unethical.
That “do no harm” credo is quite a nuisance.
So we rely on anecdotal evidence. Ben Johnson walks among us. Mark McGwire, now 49 and coaching with the Cardinals, looks hearty and very trim compared to his playing days. Barry Bonds, now 48, slimmed down even more after retirement. He took up cycling. And, of course, Armstrong – 16 years into his cancer recovery – is the very image of vigor.
But Armstrong's ex-teammate Tyler Hamilton has argued quite convincingly that different bodies cope differently with the drugs, and the wealthier an athlete, the more likely he is to get optimal treatment. Armstrong, according to the USADA report on cycling, paid more than $1 million to Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor who oversaw his training, during their working relationship.
That kind of cash will buy not only premium performance, but probably better precautions. Poorer people trying to get ahead in a sport won't have that luxury.
The dilettante “Just Say Yes to Doping” crowd always seems to forget that health care is not distributed equitably. I once participated in a televised panel discussion with young athletes in the audience, posing questions. A slight football player from one of the most disadvantaged high schools in San Francisco implored the adults to remember athletes like him and protect his right to compete clean.
That kid knew what he was facing. If he took steroids or growth hormone and they hurt him, no one would help, or care, or even notice.
As Bonds awaited trial on perjury and obstruction charges, cyclist Tammy Thomas was convicted of similar offenses. Nobody paid attention. She was never a superstar. She had tested positive twice and been banned for life from cycling.
Pictures from Thomas's cycling career show a heavy-jawed, hirsute face – far more masculine than the one that appeared at the defendant's table for her trial. As the judge weighed whether to send Thomas to prison, her attorney argued for leniency partly on the grounds that she had medical conditions that required her to take as many as five psychotropic drugs.
If the apparent good health of McGwire and Bonds and Johnson is sufficient anecdotal evidence to support a libertarian approach to doping, do Thomas’ conditions act as counterweight? She isn't alone. The history of Tour de France champions is spotted with tales of self-destruction and de facto suicides.
About two years ago, three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond and his wife, Kathy, felt compelled to remind people why they opposed doping so adamantly. In an essay on Greg's blog titled “Doping and The Story of Those We Love,'” Kathy recalls a story she had told privately in the past, but has been reluctant to take public. In 1990, a call woke the couple in the middle of the night. The wife of Dutch cyclist Johannes Draaijer was sobbing. She had found him dead next to her in bed. An ambulance was on its way, but she knew it would be too late.
"He is cold,'' she kept saying to Kathy.
The LeMonds knew that Draaijer had been under pressure to use the latest pharmacology. His widow eventually told a magazine that he had used EPO and that she believed its blood-thickening properties caused his heart to stop.
Why don't we talk more, a lot more, about what happened to these people? We might learn that all the deaths were coincidental. We'd probably discover a lot of conflicting, confusing facts and half-truths. But at least we'd learn something of value. It beats obsessing over whether Armstrong should receive an asterisk or a DQ, and wondering who really won the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005.