Why Lance Armstrong's Teammates Snitched

On the code of silence in professional cycling
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On the code of silence in professional cycling

Much of the commentary following today's release of damning testimony against bike racer Lance Armstrong shows that the case turned on 11 former associates, who admitted to doping themselves. Why did they do that?

It's now clear that without the other riders, there wasn't a case. Despite more than a decade of blood tests and urine samples, little scientific or quantitative data existed to wave at Armstrong. What little there is, doesn't prove the case.

A few weeks ago in this space we looked at one possible number. We asked whether Armstrong's recorded times for a famous mountain stage of the Tour de France, the Alpe d'Huez, might be a clue to his guilt or innocence. We concluded (and readers insisted in the comments, often angrily) that the case was still circumstantial at best, even considering what we knew about Armstrong's actual velocity on a bicycle—which was very, very, very fast.

Still, because cycling isn't a statistically oriented sport (it doesn't have speed records as does track and field or swimming) the case against Armstrong would be legal, not scientific, our exercise concluded.

Today's report by the US Anti-Doping Agency, leaked within the past few hours, confirms that suspicion. It's almost entirely based on claims by former teammates and others who say they saw Armstrong take banned, performance-enhancing drugs; talk about them; shared some with him; or helped him arrange access. So the question now is less one of medicine or sports science, than criminal psychology. What compelled people to talk?

At CyclingNews, Michael Ashenden, a doctor who specializes in doping cases, suggested some conditions for breaking what he called "bicycling's omerta." Ashenden is a well-known figure around the Armstrong case, after he loudly resigned from a high-profile commission on doping run by international cycling's governing body. He claimed it wasn't taking the problem seriously; whatever you think of that, he's a widely cited voice on the subject. He spoke on the matter last month, and it's worth quoting at length:

In my opinion, three ingredients must co-exist in order to sustain an omerta in cycling.

First, there must be something to hide. Despite the self-serving data bending and associated propaganda to the contrary, I am led to believe that there are pockets of organised, highly sophisticated dopers even within ‘new age’ cycling teams. Personally, I don’t accept that the ‘dark era’ has ended, it has just morphed into a new guise.

Second, the riders must fear reprisal if they share their knowledge with authorities. Whereas USADA’s charge letter indicates the bully was Armstrong, most riders would now recognise his relative impotence given that his modus operandi has been revealed and disgraced. Who else could riders fear? I am told they continue to fear the team hierarchies who have the power to ‘hire & fire’. They hold the rider’s future to ransom and thereby ensure they never ‘spit in the soup’.

Third, for an omerta to thrive the riders must doubt that anything would change even if they did take their information to the authorities. Everyone has witnessed the fate of [cyclists] Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and Jörg Jaksche after they spoke out. I am sure that has left an indelible impression on current riders whose moral compass nags them to tell the truth but who have seen the likely outcome if they did....

If any one of those three ingredients were permanently removed from the cycling landscape, I think the omerta would begin to erode and eventually crumble.

That appears to be roughly what happened. Former Tour de France rider George Hincapie, who admitted to doping a few hours ago, also implied that he had no choice but to divulge everything he knew, because he'd become part of a federal investigation:

I was approached by US federal investigators, and more recently by USADA, and asked to tell of my personal experience in these matters. I would have been much more comfortable talking only about myself, but understood that I was obligated to tell the truth about everything I knew. So that is what I did.

To really figure out what got people talking, though, we have to look before the legal case. Accusations have been common for years, and somehow reached a critical mass.

In Armstrong's case, a number of references are already floating around to the classic 'prisoner's dilemma,' the well-known game theory exercise used widely in international relations, where it was long believed useful for modeling diplomatic situations. As anyone who has taken an undergraduate economics or poli-sci course knows, the prisoner's dilemma involves two imaginary prisoners kept apart in two cells, and interrogated. If they both keep their mouths shut, their interrogators get nowhere. If one talks, however, the other either accepts guilt, or has to retaliate, by talking too. When and how to talk, and when to keep quiet, is precisely the stuff of Armstrong's case.

A former endurance cyclist who did not compete in the Tour de France, Michael Shermer, made that case early on in the Armstrong scandal. Two years ago, Shermer argued in the LA Times that "when equilibrium's off, doping cyclists come forward."

Once a few elite athletes in a sport cheat, their competitors must also cheat (even if they only suspect others are doping), leading to a cascade of cheating through the ranks.

If everyone is doping, there is equilibrium if and only if everyone has something to lose by violating the code of silence.

So in the end, even with all the testing, it looks as if science didn't get Armstrong. Not even a stopwatch could get him.

Organizational psychology, with a little bit of economics, did.