THE fate and legacy of global cycling icon Lance Armstrong could take a decisive turn tonight when the International Cycling Union meets to decide on the American’s spectacular fall from grace.
The credibility of the sport’s governing body, the UCI, may also be on the line. Armstrong’s reputation as the cancer survivor who claimed a record seven consecutive Tour de France victories is now in tatters after he was handed a life ban by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
The USADA have also stripped Armstrong of his wins after finding him guilty of being at the centre of the biggest doping program in sporting history.
Tonight (ADST) in Geneva, the UCI, whose president Pat McQuaid succeeded Dutchman Hein Verbruggen only in 2006 – a year after Armstrong had secured his seventh and final yellow jersey – is expected to give its official ruling having spent weeks studying the thousands of pages of the USADA report.
If the UCI does not support USADA’s recommendations, the case could be decided by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Backing the USADA would boldly underline the UCI’s ongoing commitment to the fight against drugs cheats as well as highlight its desire to confine the drug-fuelled successes of the past well behind it.
Although McQuaid is credited with introducing the much-heralded blood passport program – a proven deterrent for cheats – he has often come in for criticism in his years in charge of the UCI.
Criticised for not seeing the harsh reality and the extent of doping in the sport, he has arguably also fallen victim to the legacy of his predecessor.
It was during Verbruggen’s stewardship that Armstrong and his teams were, according to the USADA report, able to cheat their way to triumph without being caught despite the American undergoing hundreds of doping controls.
For Verbruggen, Armstrong’s yellow jersey win in 1999 could not have been more timely – coming a year after the Festina doping affair virtually brought the sport to its knees with revelations of rampant abuse of banned drugs such as EPO (erythropoietin).
However Armstrong’s subsequent successes, and admission that he had been working with an Italian sports doctor, Michele Ferrari, notorious for his work with banned substances, would go on to raise eyebrows.
Greg LeMond, the first American to win the race three times, was one of the first to voice his disapproval of Armstrong’s relationship with Ferrari.
Eventually, in 2004, LeMond said: “If Armstrong’s clean, it’s the greatest comeback. And if he’s not, then it’s the greatest fraud.”
Having been deserted by his major sponsors in the wake of the revelations, Armstrong has since stepped down as chairman of his Livestrong foundation which raised millions for cancer survivors worldwide.
On Sunday in his home town of Austin, Texas, Armstrong spoke for about 90 seconds before the start of the Livestrong Challenge, a 160km cycling event to benefit the foundation.
“This is truly an honour to be here. I’m truly humble,” Armstrong said.
“We have had a lot of lucky breaks along the way, but it has been a special ride.
“When we started this organisation 15 years ago if you told me that little organisation, that little idea, would raise half a billion dollars, would have touched two and a half million lives around the world, I would have said you are crazy. But those are all true. That’s what happened.”
A record turnout of riders on Sunday raised $1.7 million for Livestrong.