COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A week after the United States Anti-Doping Agency charged Lance Armstrong with doping, an epic wildfire erupted in the mountains just west of the organization's headquarters, racing down a dry canyon and incinerating hundreds of homes before stopping just short of USADA's nondescript, evacuated offices.
Along with the inevitable jokes about dousing the flames with urine samples, the fire prompted dark commentary in the cycling world about the misfortune that frequently befalls those who dare attack Armstrong; by going after an iconic athlete with many admirers, lawyers, and dollars, USADA was meddling with the primal forces of nature.
The Waldo Canyon Fire was extinguished, but USADA still faces a very real threat in Armstrong, who categorically denies the doping charges, and has filed a federal lawsuit challenging USADA's authority to sanction him. He has denigrated the witnesses behind the case (the few who have been named publicly) and sent lobbyists to Congress in an apparent effort to restrict a critical source of USADA's public funding, a $9 million annual grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
"The United States Congress has no role in determining whether an individual athlete doped, but we do have a great interest in how taxpayer money is spent," wrote Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) in a July 12 letter to the ONDCP, demanding answers about USADA's Armstrong probe.
That's right: with the London Games one week away, and the United States notorious worldwide for fielding Olympic teams populated with dopers who have all but ruined the credibility of track and field and cycling, Sensenbrenner is asking if USADA's tiny slice of federal revenue – less than one twentieth of the Yankees' annual player payroll – is wastefully spent.
It's a weird logic, given how disgusted voters have become watching federal courtrooms serve as the venue for determining what drug or hormone fueled the superhuman feats of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Now Lance Armstrong has sought a jury trial to short-circuit the USADA arbitration process that Congress has endorsed, and at least one congressman thinks the solution is to hold the nonprofit agency's feet to the fire.
None of this appears to have done much to intimidate Armstrong's newest nemesis, Travis Tygart, USADA's chief executive officer. A former high school athlete from Florida who joined USADA as its chief attorney in 2002, Tygart and his team have spent two years building the case against Armstrong and five close associates. The charges, USADA says, are based on testimony from more than 10 of the legendary cyclist's former teammates, as well as 38 blood samples Armstrong submitted between 2008-12.
Armstrong's public relations team says Tygart has a "vendetta" against the seven-time Tour de France winner, and Tygart responds to the rhetoric with the disciplined silence of a seasoned attorney who knows the worst thing he could do is to overreact and give Armstrong's lawyers something to exploit. Under unprecedented scrutiny, Tygart has to play clean. It could be a make-or-break moment for USADA.
"The evidence is overwhelming," Tygart said in a statement responding to Sensenbrenner's letter. "Were we not to bring this case, we would be complicit in covering up evidence of doping, and failing to do our job on behalf of those we are charged with protecting."
As the rhetoric heats up, security issues become more of a concern: it is not inconceivable that some lunatic would be inspired to visit USADA's non-descript offices in Colorado Springs to make trouble. The address is shared with several government defense contractors, and the building's security is discreet but muscular. There are no urine samples stored in the offices - those reside in accredited labs – and the approximately 40 employees on site include scientists, lawyers and outreach specialists. It's a huge job to educate thousands of young athletes, for instance, about dietary supplements, which are often tainted with steroid precursors thanks to deregulation efforts of Sensenbrenner's colleagues in Washington.
USADA was established in 2000, after repeated drug scandals made it clear that Olympic sports had little incentive to police themselves when a little bit of pharmaceutical enhancement could make so many people fabulously rich and famous. Congress declared USADA the nation's official anti-doping agency and authorized the Colorado-based organization to conduct drug testing of Olympic athletes and enforce a codified system of rules, with punishments governed by the arbitration system mandated for Olympic sports by the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act. One person on the U.S. Olympic Committee panel that helped draft the rules was Armstrong's agent, Bill Stapleton.
American athletes competing in Olympic sports agree to the USADA Protocol when they sign up for competition licenses. They agree to notify the agency of their whereabouts (for surprise tests) and obtain exemptions ahead of time if medical conditions require consuming banned substances. If it seems invasive, they can thank Marion Jones.
The nuts and bolts of USADA's work is much more dull than the "witch hunt" Armstrong alleges. A recent initiative was the creation of an iPad app USADA developed for its doping control officers, the 70 or so people who collect about 8,000 samples a year; the app reduces paperwork and speeds the sample collection process, which can be a tedious ritual for the 1,200 athletes in USADA's registered testing pool.
On July 17, USADA announced that 19-year-old Joshua Gilbert, an aspiring Olympic weightlifter from Las Vegas, had committed an anti-doping rule violation. A news release said Gilbert tested positive for the banned diuretic Furosemide at an event on March 2 and then, on March 20 - before being notified of the laboratory's result - Gilbert refused to submit to another test. The combination of the urinalysis and the missed test represented "aggravating circumstances," resulting in a three-year suspension.
The press release didn't say what a simple Google search reveals, which was that Gilbert - a kid who can deadlift 451 pounds - worked out at "Average Broz's Gymnasium," a Las Vegas facility that was home to another weightlifter, 21-year-old Patrick Mendes, who in February tested positive for human growth hormone and confessed to USADA, receiving a two-year ban.
Did USADA have a "vendetta" against Average Broz? Were Gilbert and Mendes deprived of joining the U.S. Olympic Team because of a "witch hunt" against weightlifters? Or did some basic investigation by USADA locate a trouble spot and prompt the kind of targeted testing that is both authorized by the USADA Protocol and also represents an efficient use of USADA's limited budget?
USADA officials wouldn't say. The simply point to the press release, with its dry, factual language. It was one of a few dozen such releases USADA sends out each year, usually listing an obscure substance and an obscure sport. Journalists typically delete them after a cursory glance.
No one ignored the one that went out on July 10, however, announcing that two doctors and a trainer who worked closely with Armstrong and his teams were receiving lifetime bans. Luis Garcia del Moral, Michele Ferrari and Jose MartÃ were described as having helped traffic and administer drugs and arrange blood transfusions for Armstrong's teams.