Thursday, October 22, 2015

"Caveat Spectator"

Lance Armstrong winning US Pro Championship 1993/PCT photo

In Philadelphia, on June 6, 1993, a young Lance Armstrong won the CoreStates USPRO road racing bicycle race, completing a triple crown of races that summer--good for a $1 million dollar bonus to Lance and his Motorola squad.

Here is the write up by Barry Boyce on the pro-cycling historical site, CyclingRevealed:
The pressure began to mount on Armstrong and his Motorola team as 125 riders came to the start line to dethrone the Texan. Motorola’s director Jim Ochowicz brought a strong contingent to support Armstrong. A key member of the team, British powerhouse Sean Yates, flew in from Europe for the race.

An early breakaway was chased and brought back by Motorola, when Roberto Gaggioli attacked on the eighth climb of the Manayunk Wall and generated a seven rider breakaway. Armstrong was the first to join the Gaggioli inspired break and powered the group to a 2’30” lead.
When the breakaway hit the Wall for the final time Armstrong exploded from the group. To the roar of the huge crowd lining the Wall Lance went over the top of the climb with a 26 second gap. ... As he rounded the traffic circle at Logan Square Armstrong heard the roar of the 100,000+ ecstatic fans along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Pumping his arms in the air as he crossed the finish line Lance Armstrong beat all the odds and won the ONE MILLION DOLLAR Prize in grand style. 
Well, it's pro sports.... so there's always more than meets the eye.

In 2006 Stephen Swart, a rider on the competing Coors Light Team, testified that Armstrong paid $50,000 to be distributed to Coors riders after the 2nd leg of this triple-crown, presumably to reward cooperation in letting Armstrong win. Another Coors rider, Italian Roberto Gaggioli, testified that after the final race (above) Armstrong hand-delivered $100,000 to him in a cake box in Italy, part of a deal that Gaggioli would not attempt to chase down Armstrong on that final break.

Today, Velo News reports that in a deposition in whistleblower litigation with Floyd Landis and the U.S. government, Armstrong "has not only admitted that his Triple Crown win in 1993 and resulting $1 million bonus came about after the rival Coors Light team was paid to let him win, but that longtime U.S. cycling insider and current BMC Racing Team manager Jim Ochowicz orchestrated it."

Which raises a question. Who is harmed here?

The main party harmed, I suppose, would be the race sponsors. But are they harmed?  The public likes nothing like a winner.  "The crowd roared," says Boyce above. See the Tiger Woods mania before the fall; see the Armstrong mania about his seven Tour de France wins before the fall.

Presumably the sponsors put up the money for winning this Triple Crown because the race and the sponsors get a lot more exposure if there is a triple crown winner. Think about the excitement generated at the thought of a triple crown winner in horse racing every year. Doesn't look like the race sponsors are harmed.

The money gets spread around to some of the other riders, so they like it. And they're all consenting adults.

Now that it’s blown into a scandal, the media like it. And we love to read salacious stories about it. The public liked it when Armstrong was superman, and they like it now that he's a villain and a goat.

Looks like a win-win-win to me.

Are there laws against this? I’d rather regulate the black box of Big Data myself.

When it comes to pro-sports: it's caveat emptor, or should we say caveat spectator.

The payoff/PCT photo

UPDATE: I received an email from Sandy Zirulnik, who sent me the Velo News article to begin with. He says: "I think there was a reasonable argument involving “the level playing field” since everyone was doing PEDs. It was not cheating, just a fact of life. However, cake boxes with $100,000 cash have no interpretation other than 'we are cheating to win the race.' Donors and recipients and funders of the illegal payoffs are cheating. They are committing harm by fixing a sporting event that is supposed to be an honest competition."

Our riding partner, Victor Rauch, also thinks "the damaged parties are the sponsors/owners of the teams that did not race to win and did not get the chance for the bargained and paid for publicity."

Yet there is something in bike racing culture, entirely honorable, that lends itself to what happened in these races in 1993. If we look at the grand tours, the Vuelta is often won by a Spaniard, the Tour de Swiss is often won by a Swiss, at the Giro we find Italiens at the top, and at the Tour de France a Frenchman often wins on Bastille Day.

These outcomes are not exactly fixed. There is real racing going on. But there is an allocation among the teams of who targets particular races, and who will make the big effort on a given day--or tour. These things are understood in the peloton.

Domestiques ride to support leaders. Indeed, says Wiki, the first riders known to have been employed to help a leader were Jean Dargassies and Henri Gauban in the 1907 Tour de France, and they did it for money. Pepin promised them the equivalent of first prize if they would pace him from restaurant to restaurant. Today, domestiques are well paid professionals, paid to ride in support of different riders; paid not to win.

At given times, race leaders will hold back to allow a hard working domestique to garner some glory. 

Competitors will suddenly sit up after a hard race and cross the finish line holding hands.

It's not shocking, therefore, that if you throw a $1 million prize in the mix, teams and riders will make accommodations to help the odds of this money "not going to waste." I'm not condoning it; but it doesn't greatly offend me. I think it comes from the tradition.

And Motorola in fact was the strongest team, and Lance was the strongest rider that year. The reason other teams agreed to play along and hold back is that no one else had a shot at the million dollar prize. So riders joined together to support the race leader to 'not spoil it,' and get some of the loot--just like Jean Dergassies and Henri Gauban.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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