Where Denial Becomes Evidence of Guilt

I really reacted strongly to this column in the New York Times today about Lance Armstrong and the EPO scandal.

What I’m reacting to, I think, is the insistence that denial of guilt is in fact the worst thing that one can do; I can’t find my copy of “Darkness at Noon,” but that seems the appropriate source for a claim like this:

Armstrong has vehemently denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs. His problem is distinguishing his refutation amid the sports culture of deception and lies.

A firm denial has lost its credibility when every culprit claims innocence, when the sprinter Kelli White denies and then confesses, when Rafael Palmeiro shakes a finger at Congress to underscore his goody-goody stance on a steroid-free body, but his positive test is revealed a few months later.

Somehow, I keep hearing the voice saying, “only the guilty refuse to confess” throughout this piece.

There are real and significant issues around the ‘engineering’ of our athletes, and the culture that elevates them to the point that simple games become worth re-engineering our bodies.

But I have a simple view on accusations; they need to be proved. The accused has a right to rebut.

And the innocent have every right to assert their innocence.I don’t know if Lance used EPO – I tend to doubt it, since he continued to crush the opposition even after more-sensitive tests probably would have revealed such abuse (hat tip to the Demosophist for that point). But in a world where accusation somehow automatically becomes guilt, I really don’t need Cultural Revolution-style ‘self-criticism’ from Lance or anyone else.

And Tyler Hamilton, btw, is challenging the results of his test and ban.

13 thoughts on “Where Denial Becomes Evidence of Guilt”

  1. There were and are specific protocols in place to protect against erroneous results. Those have been completely ignored in this case, and worse, the test the discovered the EPO was a prototype test. The obvious conclusion might be that the test is dodgy.

  2. My problem with the column is that it is devoid of any reference to the rules allegedly broken. Games are sets of rules. Nobody is talking about taking away Grover Cleveland Alexander’s spot in the Hall of Fame, even though its been said he pitched better drunk than sober. Character flaw? Performance Enhancer? Maybe, but the strongest indictment, cheating, depends on the rule book. And the rules (including the tests) have been works-in-progress the last several years.

  3. Exactly, and one of the rules is that there are 2 specimens taken with every test, A and B, to avoid just this type of crisis. In this case the B specimen was given to this company to test their testing technique (NOT to test Armstrong), and the A specimen was destroyed or lost. This is exactly what is _not_ supposed to happen, there is no secondary specimen to crosscheck, and worse this is an unproven technique in the first place. Armstrong has been placed in a no win situation because someone broke the testing rules.

  4. I also heard that the company that made the tests insists that there is no way to tell whose samples failed the test. The company that tested said, No, we don’t know if Armstrong did this. We only know that some people who were tested did. (That is neither an exact quote nor a literal translation, but it is the jist of what they said.)

    Seems they oght to know.

  5. Probably the best analogy would be baseball. In that case everyone from Jose Canseco to Barry Bonds to Rafael Palmeiro to Mark McGuire to Sammy Sosa have been implicated in steroid abuse.

    A massive competitive advantage is soon copied, better performance through chemicals is easy to duplicate.

    Yet Armstrong dominated? Why?

    He suggested it was because after nearly dying from cancer he both didn’t worry mentally (which he argued reduced his performance) since hey, he was alive, and discounted pain which was nothing like the chemotherapy he endured. Since the Tour is an exercise in extreme and continuing pain, this does make some certain intuitive sense.

    My question is that if Armstrong was doping, how come OTHER cyclists didn’t copy, particularly since the Tour has throughout it’s history been marred by one substance scandal linked to performance after another?

  6. Marc:

    I’m becoming alarmed at the extent to which a certain segment of the public and its media simply misunderstand foundational principles. How would “presumption of innocence” work if denial of guilt became a crime, even if it were false denial?

    There are a number of “Type II” situations where the presumption of guilt is required because of the dire consequences of an erroneous acquittal (WMD in Iran, for instance) but those aren’t typical of any situation I can think of in either criminal justice or sport, for heaven sake.

  7. Jim, competitive cycling has been wracked by performance enhancing drug scandals for years, particularly including EPO. This year, one rider was ejected from the Tour de France when his wife was found with a number of doses of EPO.

  8. I never got an answer to my emailed question to the Larry King interview, “Does the altitude tent increase erythropoetin levels and hematocrit?” My suspicion is that it does so in much the same way as actually living at altitude. Lance Armstrong and many others on the circuit sleep in an altitude tent where the oxygen level is reduced on purpose so as to physiologically place a bigger requirement for the body to produce red cells. Why that issue did not get any airtime is interesting. Altitude tents and CVAC pods are not illegal or against the rules and may easily explain why he may have legitimately had an increase in his levels, though epo levels would be transient or so mild in any case as to be unregisterable. But might be increased also.

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