There was no lyric opera at the North Park Theater last Monday night. No play or musical or screening of an art-house flick.
Instead, several hundred people paid $35 each to sit in the historic theater and watch a graphic slide presentation about avascular necrosis of the hip followed by another about isotopes and metabolites and levels of contamination in urine samples. To watch cyclist Floyd Landis fight for his professional life.
“This,” Will Geoghegan, Landis' business manager, said in his introductory remarks, “is about doing what it takes to win.”
JIM BAIRD / Union-Tribune
Floyd Landis greets a supporter at a fund-raising presentation, part of a nationwide tour, held a week ago in North Park.
And therein lies the heart of the issue.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency thinks what it took for the Murietta cyclist to win the Tour de France last summer was an illicit boost from synthetic testosterone. And Landis thinks he needs to go to unprecedented lengths – doing and saying and spending whatever it takes for the past nine months – to prove his innocence.
The case has gone from the mountain hamlet of Morzine in the French Alps to test tubes in a laboratory outside Paris to the USADA's offices in Colorado Springs, Colo., to a slide show at “Town Hall” meetings at the North Park Theater and 12 other venues across the country. Beginning today it moves to Malibu, to a courtroom at the Pepperdine University School of Law for a USADA arbitration hearing that is expected to last into next week.
What is the case about?
The short answer is a 100-milliliter urine sample that Landis provided shortly after his dramatic victory in Stage 17 of the Tour last July. It allegedly tested positive for artificial, or synthetic, testosterone, and the USADA charged Landis with a doping offense that carries a two-year competition ban along with the loss of his Tour title.
But more is on trial in Malibu. Landis has taken on the entire anti-doping system, robustly challenging the credibility of the French lab as well as the World Anti-Doping Agency and the USADA, its U.S. subsidiary.
“It's a fight for the future of (USADA),” Landis said in an interview last Monday at Hawthorn's restaurant, which is adjacent to the North Park Theater and was owned by his father-in-law, David Witt, before he committed suicide in August. “If they lose this, they cease to exist. There would be no point in accusing anyone ever again.”
Accordingly, Landis has exercised his right to take the arbitration hearing public – the first time that has happened in USADA's six-year history. But the sword may be equally jagged on both sides, and consequently the battle equally bloody, hacking away at the reputation of both USADA and Landis.
While Landis and his entourage of doctors and PR specialists have traveled the country, routinely and relentlessly hammering away at the USADA, calling the doping case a “witch hunt” and “McCarthyism” and “draconian” and “deplorable science” and even “criminal,” the USADA has remained quiet. It has to, according to its bylaws, which preclude comment on doping cases until they are fully adjudicated – unless the athlete waives that clause.
Landis has refused.
“Why should we (waive it)?” Landis said. “They don't follow any other rules . . . That might be the only rule they have followed, and that might be because they have nothing to say. It's unfortunate they use that as a shield.”
But the USADA gets its day in court beginning today, and there is speculation the anti-doping body may go beyond trying the case on purely its scientific merits. World Anti-Doping Agency rules state that if drug tests show presence of a banned substance – in this instance, testosterone from an outside source – it doesn't matter how or why it got there. You're guilty.
The nine months of unyielding attacks against its organization, though, may tempt the USADA to launch an offensive against the kid from Pennsylvania Dutch country with the bad hip. To put his character on trial as well.
In the 2004 case against U.S. cyclist Tyler Hamilton, considered one of the sport's “good guys,” the USADA wondered aloud during the arbitration hearing how you could believe his persistent denials of blood doping when he lied about getting an undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado.
“Believe me, they will try a lot of things, because frankly their science case is nonexistent,” Landis said. “They will try to discredit everything I've ever said and everything I've ever done.”
The USADA has remained mum about its strategy, but it is expected to outline how Landis allegedly was doping not just on Stage 17 – when he overcame a supposedly insurmountable deficit to position himself to win cycling's most revered crown – but throughout the entire 2,272-mile race and perhaps throughout his entire pro career.
Evidence from Operation Puerto, the Spanish investigation into a widespread doping ring, has shown that elite cyclists routinely apply testosterone patches for recovery purposes, then take medication normally used by menopausal women to avoid detection in the first screen for illicit testosterone levels. Only if that first screen is abnormal are urine samples subjected to a more expensive and time-consuming test, called a carbon isotope ratio.
The USADA requested and received permission to retest Landis' seven other urine samples from the 2006 Tour, all of which had passed the initial testosterone screen and were declared “negative.” But the retest was using the supposedly foolproof carbon isotope ratio, and the samples reportedly showed evidence of synthetic testosterone.
Landis has questioned practically everything about the Stage 17 test, from the labeling of his urine sample to the interpretation of the results to calibration of the machinery to the motivations of the French lab. And he has done it in a largely public manner, putting 300-plus pages of documents on the Internet and having his longtime coach, San Diego-based Dr. Arnie Baker, present a slide show highlighting their concerns.
There also is the Floyd Fairness Fund, which, according to executive director Michael Henson, has raised $600,000 for Landis' defense. It is not a nonprofit organization, meaning contributions are not tax deductible and also meaning that a detailed accounting of how the money is spent is not available through public tax returns.
In the end, it amounts to one of two things: a genuine and necessary campaign to level an inherently uneven playing field, or a shameless stream of propaganda to divert attention from a sport and athlete pumped full of banned substances.
“Any athlete is certainly privileged to go out and speak to the press and hire a PR firm,” says Dr. Gary Wadler, a respected anti-doping expert from New York University. “But when one side has to be silent by virtue of code, it's only one side of the story and it's of limited to no value. All kinds of assertions are being made, but they're just assertions.
“Right now you're hearing only one side, period.”
That didn't seem to bother the 300 or so people at the North Park Theater last week. They greeted Landis with a standing ovation when he first appeared on stage.
“It's been stressful to me and my family,” Landis said. “No matter what the outcome is, I'll feel proud of what I did . . . I won the Tour de France, and I deserved to win the Tour de France.”
Mark Zeigler: (619) 293-2205; firstname.lastname@example.org