Archive: The Numbers Game

Originally Published on Cyclismas in 2012

A few weeks ago I was asked by the BBC to do an interview. They, like many others, had read my article and graphics on “The legend of the 500” and were interested not only in the true figure, but how 500 became such a defining number.

The interview, to date, has not been used. Maybe because just a few days later UCI President Pat McQuaid revealed that the UCI had tested Lance just 215 times. Maybe because on the morning of the interview I had a pretty major panic attack, and being confined in a 6ft by 3ft room with a microphone in front of me and someone in my ears that was 400 miles away didn’t make for a great interview, or maybe, the BBC werent quite ready to stir up the hornets’ nest that is the Lance lies. Maybe they weren’t ready to put their name to a number reached by a fan, a knowledgeable fan, but a fan nonetheless. A number based partly on undeniable evidence, but partly on conclusions of peoples whose names I couldn’t give them, and second-hand reports over the last ten years.

The night before the interview I wrote down some notes. One of the key things they seemed interested in was not just the final number, not how that number was reached, but how and why the famous “500” has been so readily accepted over the years, and where did that number come from.

Before we reach five hundred we have to start at twenty eight.

Le Tour 2010 - Stage Twenty

On the final stage of the Tour de France in 2010, the RadioShack team controversially wore their now famous “28” shirts in Paris. I was among the crowd on the Champs Elysées hearing various reports of delays, rumours of riders changing numbers, holding up the race; the reception that RadioShack got as they entered Paris was decidedly mixed. Accusations of self-promotion and lack of respect to the organisers followed, but in the middle of all that those two simple numbers had a very huge impact.

28 Million. Sounds great, accurate, who knows, do we have any idea how many cancer survivors there are? We know in 2007 about 7.6m people died worldwide of cancer, we’ve no idea how many survived. Why has that number never increased, should it now be 29 million, or have some lost their fight and it’s gone down to 27 million? The truth is, nobody really cares, not even the most ardent critics; it’s just a number, you don’t question things like how many cancer survivors there are in the world. But for Lance it was a hugely important lesson, it taught him that one short statement, or a simple number, could be a whole lot easier than churning out lengthy statements about all the good work you do, how much you do for the cancer community. 28 million. Its social-media friendly, you can tweet it, retweet it, put it on a t-shirt, it looks good, the numbers complement each other, they look good together, two and eight go together so well, far better than three and four or one and nine – who cares if it’s accurate? It looks good, and it makes a statement. 28 Million.

Give Lance credit where it’s due, he became one of the quickest to adapt to the power of the social media, recognising the limits of the 140-character statement and adapting his message and intent to fit those restrictions.

For so long it was “I’m the world’s most tested athlete, nobody has been tested more than me, I’ve never tested positive.” Its a mouthful, its not friendly, it lacks impact. It is easily arguable, but by the time you’ve started saying to somebody “Didn’t Marion Jones claim the same thing?” or “So did Jeannie Longo,” or “Eric Zabel won over 200 races, 9 grand tour Points jerseys,” or “Hang on, according to USADA, even Kristin Armstrong has been tested more times than Lance,” the target of your moral lesson has already turned off.

So by 2010 it was changing, and by July of 2010 Tim Herman was stating, “ We don’t know exactly the number but we think it’s around 300 separate tests that he’s undergone and he has never had a positive test.” By 2011 Lance was quoted as saying, “I have been tested over 500 times and not once tested positive,” and by 2012 it had become the slightly ridiculous “Throughout his twenty-plus year professional career, Mr. Armstrong has been subjected to 500 to 600 drug tests without a single positive test.”

But the 500 number was the key; like the 28 million, it was a nice round number, easy to remember, fitted nicely in tweets, sounded good, and Armstrong no longer had to come out with long sprawling defences as he had in the past, now it was simply “500 tests, 28 million cancer survivors, end of story,” and “I don’t need to say anymore than that, I’m lance armstrong, those are the facts.” The fans, supportive journalists, other riders all had something they could repeat, retweet, they had their proof.

And so Lance had cut his entire defence down to three simple lines and two simple numbers, 500, 28 and “never tested positive.”

Of course the problems with numbers is they are tangible, they are measurable. The most-tested claim demands that you have to get results for multiple sportsmen or women, compare them, check their accuracy, and it’s painstaking and likely fruitless. But numbers, they can be challenged, researched, questioned.

So work began on finding the true number. USADA – formed in 2001 – helpfully put all of their testing on their website so you can check every athlete under their jurisdiction, while other figures for the UCI are available via L’Equipe articles, articles on notable websites such as cyclisme-dopage and others, including first-hand sources who raced on the American scene in the nineties with Lance. In coming up with the final figures we were generous.

In 2004 L’Equipe reported 63 tests between 1999 and 2004. This figure has never been questioned, and L’Equipe is highly respected, but the figure we use for that period is more than 40 tests higher, based on the “possibility of being tested.” We know that there was very little testing in the American domestic scene in the early part of the 1990’s, but we have credited Lance with a test for every win and indeed every podium spot during this time. We do know that for his comeback, Lance promised the biggest in-house anti-doping testing protocol the sport had ever seen, hiring Don Catlin to mastermind the procedure. Catlin took one sample from Lance before the program was shelved.

The final total we came up with was 236, not 300, nor 400, nor 500. This figure was drawn up by a number of people with in-depth experience of the racing scene. In truth, the likelihood that 236 is the correct number is about 1%, if that, but what we can be sure of with 99% accuracy is that 236 is the absolute maximum. Once you look further into that 236 – and let’s say we reduce it by 42 to fall in line with the L’Equipe results – we find ourselves with 194. We then look at the bio-passport tests. These are tests taken on blood samples that are generally not tested for PEDs, instead they are just used to get markers for red blood cells, plasma, and reticulocytes, and over a period of time can show up blood transfusions or manipulation.

It was in 2010 that Lance’s passport figures were published in the interests of transparency before disappearing again within hours after it was noticed by many observers that they bore all the characteristics of blood doping. And it is these Bio-Passport anomalies, or non-analytical positives, that form part of the USADA case against Lance. Of the 50 Bio-Passport controls, only around 10 were actually tested for EPO, so we are now down to around 154 tests that have been actually tested for PEDs.

If we look further, we can go into testing for EPO. EPO, or Erythropoietin, has been around in sports since the mid-nineties. It was, in fact, the drug that Lance credited with saving his life during his cancer treatment. In a rather ironic twist, one of the best known manufactures of EPO is Amgen, who produce EPOgen, and one of their early investors was the Montgomery Securities Group (Later Thom Weisel Partners), owned by Thom Weisel who as well as giving Lance his first chance in cycling at the Montgomery Subaru team, then went on to be one of the main shareholders behind Tailwind, the company that owned the US Postal Cycling team. Amgen to this day rather strangely continue to sponsor a major American cycling race, the Amgen Tour of California. We know that there was no test for EPO, the sport’s most commonly used PED prior to 2001, so already we know that of our remaining 154 tests a further 82 would not have been tested for EPO. We know of a further 19 samples between 2001 and 2005 that were not tested for EPO, bringing us to the result that Lance Armstrong – widely accused since 2001 of using EPO, including defending himself in court cases – has been tested for it as few as 53 times across his career.

People say, 200, 500 it’s a difference, but it’s still a lot of tests. It is, or is it? When we consider the true amount is probably under 200, is it a lot of tests for a guy who had a twenty-year career, who won 7 tour de France titles, who won 22 stages of the Tour de France, who spent 83 days in the yellow jersey?

In July Travis Tygart wrote:

USADA has requested that Armstrong’s counsel provide USADA the factual basis for this claim (of 500-600 tests) and Armstrong’s counsel has, to date, refused”

Lance never replied to the publication of our results, never questioned them, never commented on them – and supporters such as Phil Liggett continue to peddle the 500 myth – which was disappointing. A short while previously, I had published another article on Cyclismas looking at his various business connections. How the owner of his team, the guy who started him on the road to being a professional, gradually took over US Cycling, bought shares in Amgen (the manufacturers of the EPOgen brand of EPO), and installed friends and colleagues in positions of power all over cycling. A huge sprawling flowchart that traced its sources back as far as early articles by Bill Gifford in 2006, and recently to writings by my colleagues at Cyclismas in 2011. Work borne out of five years of research by many, followed up by many man-hours of research and presentation by myself.

The following day after my flowchart came out Doug Ullman, CEO of Livestrong, and Lance both tweeted a simple response. A single sheet of paper with two yellow boxes. In the bottom box, the Livestrong logo, a line to the top box and the words “28 million cancer survivors we serve.”

106hm40

At first I was flattered, then a little dumbfounded thinking, “Is that the best you can do? Hours of man hours or work spent bringing to the public in a readable, understandable format for the first time the sheer scale of your complete and utter corruption of US cycling, from medical companies, to the national governing body, to race organisers, to component manufactures, journalists and commentators, energy drink companies, sports companies, public strategy companies, gold mines, private jets and all you can come back with is the number TWENTY EIGHT?”

And then I sat back, and thought, whatever you think of the guy, whatever your opinions of him, you have to doff your cap to him, and admire his ability to make a single unquantifiable number so incredibly powerful.

Postcript

The UCI have confirmed that Lance was tested by them some 215 times over his career, add to that the number of tests done by USADA that were not done on behalf of the UCI and you have a figure of 233. Just three different from our estimations.

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