The Tour de France is notorious for twists and turns and uphill battles. The same can also be said of its champions. Seven-time winner Lance Armstrong has been the subject of a federal investigation since last spring, when the disgraced 2006 winner and his former teammate, Floyd Landis, accused him of doping and fraud. Now this year's winner, Alberto Contador, has been tied to two positive drug tests.
For once, maybe Armstrong is happy to have Contador, a fierce rival last year, bump him out of the headlines. The Spaniard could wind up making doping seem so common that he diminishes the blowback of future charges against Armstrong. Last week, Contador's drug test from this summer's race revealed trace amounts of clenbuterol, a banned muscle-builder. The steak must have been contaminated, claimed Contador, who was suspended by cycling authorities.
A second failed test this week made his protestations more dubious. The Associated Press reported that a different blood sample taken from Contador on the eve of the Tour's tortuous mountain climbs contained abnormally high levels of plastic residue, which some cycling experts say is a sure sign of a blood transfusion.
Even if you don't follow professional cycling, it's worth paying attention to this unfolding soap opera. Ever since Armstrong began winning France's premiere sporting event, he has faced similar allegations. But he has passed countless random drug tests and never been implicated. Now there's more than Tour titles on the line. The ongoing investigation threatens to undermine Armstrong's foundation Livestrong and its global fight against cancer—the subject of the cover story in the upcoming November issue of Fast Company.
In a sport riddled with doping allegations and scandals, it's hard to know what to believe. There are former cyclists speaking out now claiming that doping is unavoidable. The pressure's too great, they say. And there are Armstrong's former teammates who have denied the claims of Landis, who was stripped of his Tour title after a positive drug test. Meanwhile, Armstrong hasn't been charged or told what the charges might be. The whole affair sounds like something out of Kafka, Jonathan Littman wrote on the Huffington Post.
When I spoke to Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman this week, he said the news about Contador "isn't on my radar." He and his nearly 100 employees are busy putting together projects like last Saturday's Livestrong Day. On the anniversary of Armstrong's diagnosis, supporters organized 1,150 get-togethers in 64 countries to raise awareness about the needs of 28 million cancer survivors worldwide. Radio Shack, a Livestrong partner, promoted the campaign in thousands of its stores. And at the Texas-Oklahoma football game, part of the stadium got the word out with flashcards.
In the cancer community, Armstrong's miraculous cancer recovery, not his legal troubles, is the focus. "You can separate the two things," explained Alex Hejnosz, an analyst with CipherHealth whose mother survived melanoma. I met them at a recent Livestrong event in Philadelphia. "If he did whatever they're saying he did, bummer. But it doesn't detract from what he's doing for Livestrong and cancer." Besides, Hejnosz said, sports have made many of us more cynical and more forgiving in recent years. "I'm 23. I've only grown up with sports stars who have cheated. I'm used to it."
Don't miss Doug Ulman at Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored 2011 event in April.