The case launched Wednesday by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency against Lance Armstrong is notable not just because it's Lance Armstrong, and because, well -- finally. It promises to highlight the role of the entourage in elite cycling and, by extension, Olympic and international sport.
It could well crack the code of silence in cycling, once and for all. Testimony under oath can be a powerful thing.
Moreover, assuming this case against Armstrong moves as far as a hearing, and if that hearing is public, the opportunity would at long present itself to test evidence in cross-examination for all to see. Armstrong is an immensely polarizing figure. Those who see Armstrong as hero, as well as those who allege he had to have been taking something to win and keep winning, would get the chance to see evidence put to the test.
Process may not seem sexy. But process is critically important, to Armstrong and, as well, to USADA, the quasi-governmental organization that oversees the anti-doping campaign in Olympic sports in the United States. That is the American way.
As is this: Armstrong is innocent until proven otherwise.
This, too: USADA surely would not have brought a case against a figure of Armstrong's stature unless it had confidence it could deliver. There are budgets and reputations at stake amid what is likely to be an enormous variety of pressures.
"We do not choose whether or not we do our job based on outside pressures, intimidation or for any reason other than the evidence," USADA chief executive Travis Tygart said in a statement. "Our duty on behalf of clean athletes and those that value the integrity of sport is to fairly and thoroughly evaluate all the evidence available and when there is credible evidence of doping, take action under the established rules."
Much of the media will want this to be about soundbites and first impressions and an instant rush to judgment. It can't be. We don't yet know what we don't know.
The 15-page USADA "notice letter" describes -- but does not name -- "more than 10 … cyclists as well as cycling team employees." That is a substantial number of witnesses. Further, it declares that "numerous riders, team personnel and others will testify based on personal knowledge acquired either through observing Armstrong dope or through Armstrong's admissions of doping to them" that Armstrong used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone from before 1998 through 2005, and that he previously used EPO, testosterone and human growth hormone through 1996.
It further alleges Armstrong's doping will be "evidenced by the data from blood collections obtained by the UCI," cycling's international federation, taken from Armstrong, in 2009 and 2010, numbers "fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions."
The letter, dated Tuesday, alleges that Armstrong and five others engaged in a conspiracy, a "pervasive pattern of doping," that started in 1998.
Named along with Armstrong were: team manager Johan Bruyneel, the team director; Dr. Pedro Celaya, a team doctor; Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, a team doctor; Dr. Michele Ferrari, an Italian physician well-known in cycling circles described here as a "consulting doctor"; Jose Pepe Marti, a team trainer.
To read that notice letter is to understand immediately that the evidence at hand is not everything. It is, as the letter says, a "portion" of what USADA has. Further, it is apparently not evidence that USADA just scooped up in the wake of the federal investigation that ended in February, when the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles announced abruptly that it would not -- after a nearly two-year criminal probe -- charge Armstrong or other members of his riding teams.
Armstrong rode for the U.S. Postal Service and then Discovery Channel teams from 1998-2005. In 2009 he rode for the Astana Cycling team. In 2010-11, he rode for the RadioShack team.
Again: this case would appear to be built without whatever USADA might, or might not, have in hand from the Feds. One wonders whether there is more, and whether it might ever emerge.
Armstrong is of course a seven-time winner of the Tour de France, from 1999-2005. He retired from cycling in early 2011 and took up triathlon, which he had done before turning to cycling. The letter Wednesday means he is immediately banned from competing in triathlon. USADA is not empowered to bring criminal charges.
Armstrong, who has repeatedly maintained he is innocent of any wrongdoing, issued a statement Wednesday that said, in part, "I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one."
To pass so many drug tests, though, means virtually nothing. Marion Jones, the U.S. sprinter, passed more than 160 drug tests. She ultimately was revealed as a chronic drug cheat who would give back the five Olympic medals she won in Sydney in 2000.
This is, among other reasons, why the process element is so important.
Floyd Landis protested mightily when he was charged. Indeed, he even wrote a 2007 book, "Positively False," in which he said, on pages 196 and 197, "I did not use performance-enhancing drugs in the 2006 Tour de France or any other time in my career."
Evidence at a 2007 arbitration panel hearing proved that wrong.
Subsequently -- in May, 2010 -- Landis sent e-mails to cycling officials admitting that he was a serial doper. He has since accused Armstrong.
Armstrong, as his competitors and others who have encountered him know, can be fantastically combative. He has done great things for cancer survivors and along the way he has made powerful friends, some in Washington. Some of those friends doubtlessly will wonder why he is being subject to these accusations.
Indeed, you could see him working the angles Wednesday in that statement. It starts this way: "I have been notified that USADA, an organization largely funded by taxpayer dollars but governed only by self-written rules, intends to again dredge up discredited allegations dating back more than 16 years to prevent me from competing as a triathlete and try and strip me of the seven Tour de France victories I earned."
It goes on to say that these are the "very same charges and the same witnesses" the Justice Department "chose not to pursue" -- though no one outside the Department knows why -- and, a few words later, alleges that USADA's "malice, its methods, its star-chamber practices, and its decision to punish first and adjudicate later all are at odds with our ideals of fairness and fair play."
Reality check: if the conduct USADA alleges can be proven, under oath, then Armstrong and the others should be held accountable. That's our ideal of fairness and fair play.
That's process, and it should play itself out, and no amount of pressure -- financial, emotional or otherwise -- from Armstrong or his friends, no matter how high up in Washington or elsewhere, should deter that. That's fairness and fair play, too.
But to start, there's this: Armstrong is innocent until proven otherwise.