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It's still about the bike: Lance Armstrong back in the saddle
Former Sports Illustrated writer on difficulty of proving federal fraud
In 2011 Selena Roberts co-wrote a number of the most important articles on the US Federal investigation into Lance Armstrong and the US Postal team. Roberts left Sports Illustrated at the end of 2011, but she believes that a number of reasons may have led to the closing of the federal investigation into the seven-time Tour de France winner last Friday.
"It was always going to be a very difficult road for the feds for several reasons. This wasn't going to be just a doping case, this was going to be about fraud against the United States government. So it's not about whether he did or didn't [dope], it's did he commit fraud against the government? That's a high threshold," Roberts told Cyclingnews.
"Number two, it's not easy for the feds to take on Lance Armstrong because he's a very powerful force. He has many resources and he's a hero to a lot of people. It was a complicated legal case but it was also a very complicated PR case."
While public reaction from a number of parties that gave evidence in the case has been muted, Cyclingnews understands that the United States Attorney Andre Birotte's announcement came as a huge shock to many of those involved. Roberts, who worked on a number of controversial and high-profile stories during her time at Sports Illustrated, was taken aback by the timing and scenario in which the ruling was made.
"I was more surprised about the way the US attorney handled it by delivering his decision so late on the East Coast on the Friday before the Super Bowl. It's a pretty easy way, and perhaps not the gutsiest way to deliver the news," she said.
"This is a very different case than the one with Barry Bonds, I think a lot of people realised that when you look at athletes with tonnes of resources and terrific lawyers, what seems to be a slam dunk to some people hardly creates a ripple at the end of the day. It's very difficult to take on people who are powerful and resourceful.
"I think it was more about this perfect storm, what does the evidence mean and what does going after Lance Armstrong mean. It's very difficult because Lance does symbolise to many people the hope that they'll be survivors too. So it's not easy, especially in the political backdrop of the election and what things mean here in the US."
The Federal authorities' decision to clear Armstrong marks the end of a two-year long investigation, one that the Tour winner criticised several times. He has continued to make a strong defence throughout the period, and his legal team has included some of the most accomplished attorneys in the US. However, while one chapter ends another may begin. Round two could see USADA pick up the baton from the federal authorities. There is also the whistle-blower case waiting in the wings.
Immediately after the United States Attorney had made his announcement, USADA issued their own statement with CEO Travis Tygary saying "Unlike the U.S. Attorney, USADA’s job is to protect clean sport rather than enforce specific criminal laws. Our investigation into doping in the sport of cycling is continuing and we look forward to obtaining the information developed during the federal investigation."
Roberts believes that USADA may have their work cut out, however. Individuals who testified and gave evidence to the authorities the first time around may be more hesitant to do so again, regardless of whether USADA has full access to the FDA's paper work. While the fact remains that although USADA may petition for the release of all forms of evidence, some of the most important grand duty testimonies may be kept back.
"What USADA does, will be seen by many as symbolic. Again what would have separated Lance from other cases was that this wasn't going to be about doping, it was going to be about fraud and that could have damaged him in different ways than doping allegations. As far as the doping allegations go, the American public that's pro-Lance, I'm not sure if they care whether he doped. Those people are unconditionally bound to Lance for what he does and cancer, and they'll stick by him no matter what."