When the Washington Post broke a story about Lance Armstrong being charged by USADA for doping, it rocked the triathlon world. Rumours were rife that Lance would have to be suspended by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) as a result, and those rumours proved correct. To try and get to the bottom of everything that was going on, Triathlete’s Julia Polloreno spoke to Andrew Messick, CEO of the WTC, to get the facts behind the story (or stories):
When the Washington Post story came out saying USADA was bringing doping charges against Lance Armstrong, WTC announced he couldn’t compete in any Ironman events due to the open-investigation rule. Then we were advised that you’d be making an announcement last Friday, and a lot of us speculated that perhaps you reversed the rule and were going to allow him to race. But instead you stayed the course. Can you take me through the options that were discussed internally among the board and how you ultimately came to the decision to not let him race?
I received the redacted version of the USADA letter, and on receipt of that it was pretty clear and unambiguous what our obligations were under our professional athlete rules. Obviously, we had contemplated a similar scenario based on the publicity and what had been documented in the media concerning the federal investigation. But we didn’t have any unique knowledge about what USADA was or wasn’t doing. Once we received the letter, it was clear what we needed to do, so we acted appropriately in accordance to our rules. What became clear in the next couple of days as we took our analysis a little bit deeper was that the intention of the rule was really not designed to address the situation we had before us. Having had some experience from when I was at AEG and the Amgen Tour of California [as president] with the open-investigation rule, I understand the second-order consequences that had potential to flow from that rule. When I was at AEG I both implemented that rule and removed that rule, and the introduction of the open-investigation rule was really designed to address the concerns that originally stemmed from the Michael Rasmussen situation at the Tour de France—the anti-doping authorities know an athlete is being investigated and the race organizer doesn’t know. That obviously that is a very sensitive and unpleasant place for a race organizer to be.
So, I understand why rules like that exist, and I understand why it was put in place at WTC, but there’s a real serious issue that relates to due process and the presumption of innocence. And there is a vigorous and spirited debate that you can have about whether a rule like that is appropriate. That said, we have it, and we used it with [Austrian pro mountain biker turned triathlete] Michael Weiss. The conversation and debate that we had internally was: even if you don’t think it’s a rule that is appropriate given your own broader point of view on doping and the specific circumstances as it relates to Lance Armstrong, the original intention of the open-investigation rule is you have someone who’s failed their A sample and they’re waiting to get their B sample result. Do you want them in your race? Clearly Lance’s situation is very different: there’s no failed drug test. And it happened a long time ago, before he was involved in the sport of triathlon. So you can have a debate of whether that rule should be in our rulebook. We spent some time exploring that internally and externally. When I was at AEG, the person that convinced me to get rid of the open-investigation rule was [USADA CEO] Travis Tygart, who feels strongly that it’s a bad rule and not part of the WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] code and it violates due process. Ultimately our debate is: even if for the sake of argument you think it’s a bad rule, can you change a rule in the middle of the season? Is it fair to the athletes, given that all 800 professional athletes have signed up and agreed to a set of rules that govern the competition, to change those rules in the middle of the season? It was something that we ultimately decided we couldn’t do.
If you did decide to reverse the rule, when would be the appropriate time to do so?
What we’ve done—and what I’ve asked [WTC chief operations officer] Steve Meckfessel to lead the charge on—is to create a formal process, essentially a rules committee, to address any rules that we think may no longer be applicable or serving their intended interests, or any rules that don’t exist and should be introduced. We need to create a formal process through which we evaluate and say, ‘Alright, do we need to modify the rules by which our competition is governed?’ I think it’s appropriate on a regular basis, annually, to look back and say, ‘Are all of our rules doing what we think they’re doing, what we intend for them to do?’ If not, should we be changing them? We’re not adverse to that. Our issue is: when you’re in the middle of a season and you do it—and there’s clear precedent from other major sports and I’m a former NBA guy [as former senior vice president of NBA International], if a rule emerges in the middle of a season as not a good rule, at the end of the season it goes to the rules committee and you change it. But you need to think really carefully because it’s always the unintended consequences that create issues—the second- or third-order effect that aren’t immediately obvious. Like the open-investigation rule that, at first blush, seems to make a lot of sense, but the second-order, unintended consequences that end up putting people like Lance on the wrong side of the rules.
What are the implications of the ban with regard to the $1 million pledge benefiting the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and how much did that relationship weigh on you when deciding whether or not you would reverse the open-investigation rule for Lance?
We have a bright line divided between church and state in terms of the commercial aspects and the rules that govern our competition. But, we’re believers in Livestrong, we believe in what they’re trying to accomplish and think it’s a partnership that’s good for both of us and is one we still believe has great promise. That made it feel worse, but ultimately we have to do what’s right for the competition, and we have to abide by the rules that govern what we do. We’re moving forward [with WTC’s financial commitment] as though nothing has changed.
Have you heard from Lance directly with any kind of reaction?
We’ve spoken, and, yeah, this is disappointing. He wanted to race Ironman France. He thought he was going to win. I think all of us who love the sport were really, really excited to find out whether he would. And so there’s no joy in any of this—for us, for him, for anyone.
What’s your relationship with Lance like? I know it predates WTC with your former role at the Amgen Tour of California.
We get along really well. I think he’s a remarkable person—he really is. He’s super smart, he’s super focused, he’s super committed at everything that he does. It’s always a challenge to interact with someone who’s that confident and that capable and passionate about what they do. It’s been a pleasure working with him on this, it was a pleasure working with him in cycling, and who knows what the future will be.
It sounds like a lot of other race series are eager to have Lance come compete at their events—most recently there’s speculation he might race the New York City Triathlon. Any thoughts on him jumping into non-WTC events?
We certainly have no objection to it. It’s going to be great to see how well he competes, especially in the shorter distance stuff—he’s going to be faster than people think.