You don't need to follow the sport of cycling to have wondered whether former seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is guilty of doping. Like the presidential campaigns from last fall, everyone seems to have an opinion—good, bad, confused—about this high-profile athlete's vehement denial over the years.
But before you watch the world-famous cancer survivor and founder of the Livestrong Foundation come clean to Oprah on OWN at 9 p.m. ET/PT tonight and Friday, scan this quick cheat sheet we put together with the help of cycling expert Bruce Hildenbrand, who has been covering prestigious cycling events as a freelance photojournalist and announcer for 30-plus years. Hildenbrand first met Armstrong, now 41, at the Tour de France back in 1993—six years before he began his unnatural winning streak.
Read on, tune in, and judge away!
The Beginning of the End
Allegations of using illegal performance-enhancing drugs began in 1999 when Armstrong took home his first Tour de France victory. If you had to pin-point an exact moment when he started to raise eyebrows (well before standing on the podium at the end of the grueling three-week July race), it was probably during a particularly arduous mountain stage in the Alps. Armstrong had the yellow jersey at the time (meaning he was in the lead), but everyone assumed he'd drop back since he'd never shown promise as an endurance climber. Instead, he charged ahead and killed it, causing people to start questioning how he did it. And when it came out that he was a cancer survivor, people were really surprised.
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No Smoking Gun
Armstrong never tested positive, though. While 17 people testified that he took illegal performance-enhancing drugs, there was no hard evidence against him. If any existed, the International Cycling Union (UCI), the governing body to the sport, may have covered it up. The deal: If he stayed clean, the sport didn't look dirty. The only other time he came super close to getting caught red-handed was when former employee and childhood friend Mike Anderson supposedly found a vial that contained steroids under Armstrong's bathroom sink. But two days later, this evidence disappeared.
All but three Tour de France champions—Great Britain's Bradley Wiggins (2012), Australia's Cadel Evans (2011), Spain's Carlos Sastre (2008)—have been implicated for doping in the last 22 years since American Greg LeMond won in 1990. This is a sure sign that most had an “unfair advantage” during Armstrong's heyday, which would simply make Armstrong the best of the dopers. Unless, however, he had exclusive access to a top-secret performance-enhancing drug that we've never heard of. We'll find out tonight!
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The first banned drug of choice he'll likely admit to tonight is EPO, a peptide hormone that allows the body to make more red blood cells, which in turn improves oxygen transport in the body and therefore boosts muscle efficiency. For the longest time, anti-doping agencies couldn't test for the drug because it blended so naturally in the bloodstream. They eventually put a percentage limit on hormone levels (>50%) in one's system. This is how the second form of incognito cheating manifested: Blood-doping led to innovative ways to take out these crucial red blood cells just long enough to get the green light to compete—and then put 'em back in before a race. So if you've heard crazy rumors about Armstrong doing blood transfusions, they were most likely true. He may also admit to using corticoids and testosterone (steroids) as well as human growth hormone (HGH).
Armstrong is an athlete at heart who wishes to return to competition, especially elite triathlon and running events. However, no sport will welcome him—the Chicago Marathon denied him entry last September—unless he puts this tainted ordeal behind him. The hope is, if he finally admits to it—and we know he will—and sincerely apologizes—not just to cycling fans, but to everyone who believed in him—maybe people will forgive him and he can move on with his life.
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Repercussions of Admitting Guilt
Word on the street is that the statute of limitations may be up, so he could be in the clear of perjury charges. However, he may potentially face a whistle-blower lawsuit sparked by Floyd Landis, a former American teammate on the now-defunct government-sponsored pro cycling team U.S. Postal Service. Armstrong could be charged with defrauding the government by using taxpayer dollars to fund his doping habits. He may also get slapped with another lawsuit from SCA Promotions, who paid him millions to become the multi-champion of the Tour de France (he was stripped of these titles last year). In addition, his former sponsors, including Nike and Anheuser-Busch as well as smaller brands such as Honey Stinger, could also go after him for breaking their anti-doping contracts. We'll have to wait and see who will actually beat a man when he's already down.