Cold Blooded by Jere Longman. $1.99 (Amazon Prime members can borrow the book for free.) Available as a Kindle single.
Guest review by Christie Aschwanden
In early October, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released hundreds of documents implicating seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong in something the agency dubbed the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen. Jere Longman's Kindle Single Cold Blooded is essentially a Cliff Notes version of the USADA report.
In just 49 pages, Longman's ebook provides a cohesive synopsis of the case. Condensing the material was no easy feat. The USADA report contains 200-plus pages, including affidavits from more than 25 witnesses and hundreds of supporting documents, such as bank records and blood test results. Longman expertly turns this data dump into a readable summary that contains both the most important evidence (Armstrong's payments of more than one million dollars to Italian doctor Michele Ferrari) and the most amusing, such as Armstrong teammate David Zabriskie' parody of the Jimi Hendrix tune Purple Haze,
EPO all in my veins
Lately things just don't seem the same
Actin' funny, but I don't know why
'Scuse me while I pass this guy
The Zabriskie anecdote aside, Longman's writing is detached and uninspiring, no doubt because he pieced the story together from the USADA documents rather than first-hand reporting. The following passage is typical:
Shortly after the 2000 Tour de France ended, French authorities began an investigation into suspected doping by Armstrong and the Postal Service team. An anonymous letter had been sent to prosecutors in Paris. A television crew had spotted two men - Postal Service team personnel - tossing medical waste into a trash container.
For readers unfamiliar with cycling and the Armstrong case, Longman's book supplies a quick yet substantial overview. The work also stands as a convincing example of the ebook format's utility for condensing a bolus of evidence into a useful summary. I can imagine similar treatments for the next celebrity scandal or even the latest IPCC report.
Those familiar with the Armstrong case will find nothing new in Longman's ebook. If you're looking for character development or analysis, you're better off reading From Lance to Landis by David Walsh, or his forthcoming Seven Deadly Sins. Longman's colleague at the New York Times, Juliet Macur, also has a book in the works, and the USADA case report itself makes fascinating reading. Some of the affidavits weave narratives as compelling as you'll find in any novel.
The Lance Armstrong that emerges from the USADA report is a narcissistic bully who becomes increasingly vindictive toward those who dare to question him. He slaps lawsuits at his accusers and at one point, he sends a threatening text to the wife of a teammate who's set to testify against him. The evidence outlined in Cold Blooded leaves little doubt that Armstrong was a leader in what USADA CEO Travis Tygart calls a conspiracy "professionally designed to groom and pressure athletes to use dangerous drugs, to evade detection, to ensure its secrecy and ultimately gain an unfair competitive advantage through superior doping practices." As ESPN sports writer Bonnie Ford wrote following the report's release, "anyone who remains unconvinced [of Armstrong's guilt] simply doesn't want to know."
There's been a lot of deliberate not knowing over the years, and Armstrong was not the first to exploit it. Doping has been a part of cycling since nearly the beginning. The sport did not originate in the Olympic tradition but as a competition to get from here to there as fast as possible on your own steam. In the cycling's early days, racers often took cognac or amphetamines in hopes of boosting their performance. Back then, such practices weren't considered cheating. Drugs were eventually banned to protect rider health, not as a result of ethical qualms.
When U.S. team doctors and coaches blood doped members of the 1984 Olympic cycling team, they broke no official rules. Some of the team's riders refused to participate in the doping scheme, but they came to that decision via their own moral standards. Rules against doping received very little enforcement until the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its U.S. affiliate USADA in 1999, and even then, cycling's governing body remained more interested in protecting its sport's reputation and its rainmakers than in any notions of fair play. In Cold Blooded, Longman describes how Armstrong paid the UCI to cover up a positive test at the Tour of Switzerland in 1999 and the New York Daily News has reported that Nike, a long-time sponsor of Armstrong and his cancer foundation, helped pay for the bribe.
Armstrong didn't invent doping, he just did it better than anyone else before him. He understood from the beginning that fans wanted something bigger than life to believe in, and he was more than willing to oblige. His triumph over cancer gave hope to countless patients around the world, and cancer became his shield to deflect criticism. Hope was a product he could sell to his sponsors and the public. He built an empire around a false story. As I've written elsewhere, even his comeback from cancer was not as remarkable as it seems. His fraud succeeded with the complicity of accomplices and bystanders who stood to gain from his success.
Some of these co-conspirators, such as team director Johan Bruyneel and doping doctor Michele Ferrari also face sanctioning in the USADA case. Other participants in the doping culture, like Bjarne Riis and Jonathan Vaughters, remain leaders in the sport to this day.
Cycling was dirty when Armstrong arrived at the sport. The question that remains is, will it remain dirty now that he's gone?
Christie Aschwanden is a contributing writer for Bicycling Magazine. She has written about doping for NPR, New Scientist, The Washington Post, BBC Future, and Smithsonian. She blogs about science at Last Word On Nothing.