Landis' excuses make for wild ride

May 23, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

What does it say about the state of international sports - and maybe society as a whole - when the Floyd Landis arbitration hearing is far more interesting and exciting than the Tour de France that spawned this drawn-out doping controversy?

Landis has trotted in witness after professional witness to testify that the French lab that detected highly elevated levels of testosterone in his urine made enough mistakes to render the result of the drug test undependable.

Maybe that's true, but the soap opera that has developed around Landis and his allegedly tainted Tour de France victory has transcended all that technical jibber-jabber and made it highly unlikely that even a successful challenge to the test results will do much to improve his image.

Did Landis ingest synthetic testosterone to get the energy boost that propelled him to an almost superhuman performance in Stage 17 of his impressive comeback victory?

It certainly looked that way after his A sample came back positive and he responded with a series of excuses that left everyone wondering what he was thinking before, during and after this whole mess began.

Landis and his attorneys alternately claimed that the elevated levels were the result of a pre-Stage 17 drinking binge, a naturally high level of testosterone in his body, cortisone shots for his ailing hip and other legal medication.

The whole thing became such a circus that David Letterman spoofed Landis with a Top Ten list of possible excuses. (No. 9: Who can resist BALCO's delicious "spicy chipotle" flavor.)

When each early explanation was shot down by experts, the Landis team turned to what cynical CNN watchers might call the O.J. defense and began to peddle the notion that the French testing program was a confederacy of dunces who either didn't know proper testing protocol or didn't want Landis to keep the yellow jersey.

If Landis actually is innocent - which is within the realm of mathematical probability - no one should blame him for availing himself of whatever help he needs to prove it, but the public has grown weary of expert witnesses testifying in hindsight that faceless lab technicians might not have changed their rubber gloves frequently enough.

Landis might end up winning his arbitration case and retaining the Tour de France title, but if he does it will be because the three-judge arbitration panel allowed him the benefit of reasonable doubt about the supposedly sloppy handling of his primary and backup urine samples by the testing lab.

Of course, all you have to do to believe Landis was completely innocent under that scenario is ignore the laws of probability and accept an amazing coincidence - the doping experts bungled the test on his anonymous urine sample after precisely the stage of the race in which he delivered one of the most unlikely single-stage performances in cycling history.

Oh, and he delivered that performance after pounding shots of Jack Daniels the night before to drown his frustration at dropping from first place to 11th in the previous stage.

To be fair, it isn't implausible that Landis could be the victim of overzealous anti-doping officials whose crusade to clean up international sports would be undermined by proof that such a high-profile positive test was mishandled.

He testified this week that his good character prevented him from taking any shortcut to the Tour de France title, which would have been compelling stuff from a guy whose Mennonite upbringing is part of every human interest story about him. Except that his strange behavior since the first report of his positive drug test has seriously damaged his credibility.

Even so, his attorneys seemed to be scoring points with the expert scientific testimony last week, until the revelation that Landis' manager, Will Geoghegan, called three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and threatened to divulge information about childhood sexual abuse if he took the stand to testify for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

When LeMond went public with the threat Thursday, any hope of Landis coming away from all this with his image restored probably disappeared, though it isn't clear whether he approved or was involved in the planning of Geoghegan's unconscionable attempt to intimidate LeMond. The fact that Team Landis didn't fire Geoghegan until LeMond exposed him cast further doubt on Landis' character.

In the context of the war on performance-enhancing drugs, the controversy could have global implications, but it's playing out like an episode of As the World Turns.

I don't know how it's going to end, but I can't wait to find out.

Frankly, that's more than I could say about the Tour de France.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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