Within a week of Lance Armstrong's confession to Oprah Winfrey, the march of repercussions has begun to match the vigor of the cyclist's best climbs up the Alps.
The head of cycling's governing body, Pat McQuaid, has been replaced on an International Olympic Committee panel. Two Californians filed suit against Armstrong and his publishers for fraud over the fictions fobbed off as fact in the cyclist's two autobiographical books. Emma O'Reilly, the whistleblowing massage therapist whom Armstrong smeared, said she was wavering between suing him and showing him the kind of compassion he had been unable to extend to her.
But the most truthful statement Armstrong made to Winfrey left behind the biggest mystery about doping in sports. When she asked whether he ever expected to end up where he did, admitting what he had aggressively and belligerently denied for years, Armstrong replied: "We're sitting here because there was a two-year criminal federal investigation."
Armstrong didn't fear the news media, no matter how rightfully skeptical segments of it became. "I just assumed the stories would continue for a long time,'' he said almost blithely, as if he were talking about ants at a picnic.
Getting to the truth required subpoenas and search warrants and the threat of perjury charges. Without those tools, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would be writing their Hall of Fame speeches now. Armstrong would still be leading international conferences about cancer, competing in triathlons, possibly prepping to run for a Texas congressional seat.
So what's next?
Within just eight days this month, all three of those athletes were spectacularly humbled, rejected from Cooperstown and vivisected by Oprah.
In a movie, those eight days would have been the climax to a storyline that lasted 9 1/2 years and reeled in athletes from Marion Jones to Mark McGwire. In the real world, the credits may never roll on this drama, which began in 2003 at a lab near the San Francisco airport.
What's next, if anything at all? That would be the mystery. Will the government get out of the business of tracing the chemical re-engineering of famous athletes, turning the task over exclusively to sports leagues and Armstrong's bête noire, the U.S. Anti-Doing Agency? If so, will the absence of subpoenas and search warrants mean toothless enforcement?
USADA ultimately took down Armstrong, but only after the feds gathered the most vital information, interrogating former teammates and wielding the threat "we prosecuted Barry Bonds when he decided not to be straightforward with us. Do you really think you stand a chance?'' That's a bludgeon more potent than the biggest bat in baseball.
The next act should probably include a re-visitation of the criminal case that the U.S. Attorney for the Los Angeles area dropped without explanation a year ago, just before the Super Bowl. USADA, which had sent agents to sit in on some of the former cyclists' interviews with the feds, recovered the fumble.
A civil court case may fill the void, and replenish portions of the U.S. Postal Service's budget wasted on Armstrong's teams. The Department of Justice is considering joining a lawsuit filed by ex-rider Floyd Landis accusing the cycling team of defrauding its most famous sponsor, which inserted anti-doping language into its contract with Armstrong and his team.
The Postal Service spent anywhere from $30 million to $40 million backing Armstrong's team, and this particular type of case allows plaintiffs to collect triples damages, as a deterrent to other fraudsters. Landis, as the whistleblower, would get a cut of any award or settlement, but the government could still collect as much as $90 million to $100 million in the deal.
A return of even half that much would validate the efforts of FDA agent Jeff Novitzky in the best possible way, not through shaming of superstars or pressure on offices of a sports commissioner, but in cash.
It's hard to imagine Novitzky ending his pursuit now, even if it would mean going out on top. He may not nab another star for years, and he can't land a bigger one than Armstrong. There is no one bigger, only those who appear more unassailable -- for now.
But Novitzky's work has not focused exclusively on the rich and famous and knowingly corrupt. Tainted nutritional supplements, promising rapid-growth muscles and delivering them through products spiked with anabolic steroids, became a priority a while ago. A young man named Jareem Gunther played small-college baseball, bought a supplement online and ended up with liver damage that destroyed his career. Novitzky's office prosecuted the distributors and helped Gunther get a small settlement.
Overseas, McQuaid's ouster from the IOC panel has been portrayed as necessary relief for a very busy man. He does have a lot going on. He and the former head of the International Cycling Union, Hein Verbruggen tried to sue former London Sunday Times sportswriter Paul Kimmage for defamation after he accused them of aiding and abetting Armstrong and other doped cyclists. The USADA report ultimately forced them to back down in the fall, but not before two American cycling bloggers established a defense fund for the writer.
When McQuaid and Verbruggen killed their lawsuit, the defense money turned into a fund supporting an effort by Kimmage to lodge criminal charges against the pair. So yes, McQuaid, an enemy of free speech and possibly of his own sport, is quite busy, thanks in part to information procured by the U.S. government.
As Armstrong talked to Oprah, he made it clear that the federal investigation frightened him. When the U.S. Attorney killed the case, he was enormously relieved.
"I thought I was out of the woods,'' he said. "And those were some serious woods."
But he wasn't in the clear. The investigation ensnared Bonds and Clemens and Jason Giambi and Mark McGwire and Marion Jones, plus the NFL's Bill Romanowski and Dana Stubblefield and Barret Robbins, the Raiders center who went AWOL from the Super Bowl 10 years ago and has since been shot by police and endured repeated stints in drug rehab. And it still didn't stop.
It's never over, not even when it looks plainly and absolutely over.