’Sport has become teacher of life lessons’

Travis Tygart will forever be known as the man who brought Lance Armstrong down. The USADA chief executive explains how he has managed to retain his love for sport despite all he’s uncovered

’Sport has become teacher of life lessons’

Travis Tygart’s favourite novel when he was in college was ‘Don Quixote’.

He imparts that particular parcel of information with a knowing chuckle, all too aware maybe of how the story’s central quest and the titular character’s penchant for attacking imaginary enemies could be construed given his role as CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

Tilting at windmills, as Cervantes famously called it.

Tygart admits it is the nature of his job to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing what may ultimately prove to be lost causes and he laughs again when asked about how it felt to be compared to Sisyphus — as he has in the past — the king of Ephyra who, in Greek mythology, is condemned to roll a rock up a hill and watch it roll back down for eternity.

It’s an easy analogy to make, but it is misleading.

Sisyphus was punished for his deceitfulness. It is Tygart’s job to expose those with similar character flaws. It is why one of his best friends thought that it would be appropriate to compare him to Elliot Ness, the FBI agent who jailed Al Capone and led the unit that came to be immortalised as the ‘Untouchables’.

“Oh man, I don’t even know how to respond to that one,” he says through the death throes of another hearty laugh. “I did have a buddy of mine (who said that), but this whole Elliot Ness thing is way out of line because I’m not the do-gooder that’s out there. No, listen, all that aside, clean athletes deserve to have a team of people that is committed to doing the hard work. And it is hard work. It’s not the glory side of sport, as you can imagine.”

Maybe not, but Tygart is as close to a superstar as the anti-doping crusade has got. He played a major part in the BALCO investigation which uncovered a widespread and previously undetected doping operation that brought down sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, as well as baseball gods like Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi.

Five years later, in 2007, he was a central figure in ‘Operation Raw Deal’ which ended with the US Drug Enforcement Agency busting a racket that involved 30 Chinese companies importing over 11 million doses of illegal growth hormone substances to over 50 laboratories throughout the States.

And then there was Lance.

His ultimately successful pursuit of Armstrong led to Tygart being named among the top 50 most influential people in sport. ‘Time’ included him in the globe’s most influential 100 people, period, and he has traversed the US and the planet at large speaking about the widespread culture of cheating which, he believes, is endemic in all walks of modern life and yet particularly distasteful in something as pure in principle as sport.

It’s why he does what he does.

“Someone once said sport is the new universal religion. I’m not saying that it is, but it certainly has become the teacher of life lessons and values to kids and communities around the world. What it does for communities is so important and the money flowing into it is huge so, for me, if it is that important, we have to ensure it is fair and injustice doesn’t exist.

“An athlete whose rights are violated because someone else cheats them out of what they deserve, that’s an injustice we can’t stand for. I loved sport growing up. I learned a lot of life lessons out of sport and just became passionate about protecting clean athletes’ rights. I feel very fortunate to have the trust and confidence of our board but also clean athletes in the United States.”

It’s not a job he had envisioned doing. How could he? There was no USADA when he was in college studying philosophy and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was a good half-dozen years away from realisation when he graduated from the University of North Carolina, travelled around Europe and returned home to follow his father and grandfather into the law where he started off as a public defender.

Thoughts of a career as a prosecutor interested him. So did the possibility of being a sports agent, but then the law firm he worked for happened to take on some of USADA’s legal work and, when an opportunity arose to concentrate on that branch of the legal tree, Tygart embraced the urge to climb out and see how far it went.

Farther than he could have dreamt, as it turned out.

The pursuit of Armstrong could have been as futile, and fatal, as Captain Ahab’s of Moby Dick but, in June of 2012, USADA published their ‘Reasonable Decision’ which led to the Texan being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and his exposure as the key cog in what was labelled the most sophisticated doping system in the history of professional sports.

What is noticeable about Tygart as he discusses his biggest catch this week at the Irish Sports Council’s anti-doping awareness day at Croke Park was the absence of any triumphalism and, instead, the pervasiveness of regrets that permeate the biggest coup in the history of the ongoing war on drugs in sport.

Tygart didn’t want to believe Armstrong was guilty. He didn’t want to believe Floyd Landis when his fellow American revealed the staggering extent of the doping operation to which Armstrong was party to when they met in a Marriott Hotel conference room in California. And he remains saddened and frustrated by Armstrong’s unwillingness to embrace the opportunity to sit down with USADA and do more to expose what went on in the past so that it can be prevented in the future.

“It was the low point of our investigation in June (2012) when he decided not to come in. We met with him again in December in person. In fact, shortly after that we were altering our schedules over the holiday to go down to Austin and meet with him for two days. They went silent for a period of time and, next thing, they tell us he is not going to do that and he is going down a different route and that is going on ‘Oprah’ to say what it is he said.

“We firmly believe him coming in back then would have written a different ending, not only to his part of the story, but to the sport itself. There is still an opportunity and we are hopeful at some point that he does, although we understand that the first step is frequently the hardest step. As it was with Floyd and Tyler (Hamilton). All that said, we hope it’s not done so late that it can’t do any good anymore.”

That is his biggest fear.

Tygart has spoken before about the missed opportunity that was the aftermath of the Festina Affair in the late ‘90s when the widespread culture of doping was first exposed on a grand scale and the sport of cycling had a chance to wash away the sins of the past. It didn’t, of course. Instead, administrators and riders alike chose to close ranks again and re-pollute the peloton and the system.

He sees hope in the UCI’s new leadership, even if he would like them to go further than they have in addressing past sins, and believes the possibility of another cover-up on the scale of Armstrong and US Postal would be impossible given the existence of independent bodies such as USADA and WADA that weren’t around when previous sins were being concocted and committed.

Yet, the scale of the task remains immense.

USADA’s annual budget sits somewhere around $14m while the supplementary industry is worth around $28bn. Worldwide, there is no more than an estimated $300m being allocated to the anti-doping fight in a sports industry that generates in the region of one trillion dollars. Tygart accepts the discrepancy isn’t encouraging, but points out that it takes a lot more money to hide the truth than it does to expose it.

Ultimately, victory won’t come by uncovering more Lance Armstrongs or BALCOs, but by engineering a cultural shift that makes it unconscionable and, by extension, unprofitable for athletes, sponsors, administrators, federations or entire sports to turn a blind eye or, worse, cooperate in the use of illegal drugs.

‘That’s absolutely right. There are big forces fighting against us, maybe silently and tacitly bringing about that culture change because of the flow of money, the lionising of the winner and not the (person in) second or third place. You hope the dirty culture doesn’t overtake the sport. That’s what baseball saw up to the late ‘90s.

“That’s what we saw in cycling where guys didn’t have a chance to get on the podium and they decided to leave. That’s the real tragedy: when those who play by the rules can’t win or have to leave the sport because they have no chance of competing.”

The war goes on, but the battleground changes. Baseball has cleaned up its act, even if it still operates a drug policy independent of USADA, but the NFL remains a law unto itself. The NBA, too. That’s two of that country’s biggest sports, in terms of people watching and profit. And this despite the fact that nine out of 10 Americans believe more should be done to ensure that sports are being played on a level playing field. Skirmishes are being won elsewhere. The advent of biological passports has shifted the balance of power significantly, if not definitively, in the favour of the anti-doping party, while WADA introduces a new code in 2015 which will seek to sanction those complicit in covering up doping offences and make it punishable to associate with any persons found guilty of doping.

Ultimately, all that may yet pale into insignificance if research carried out recently by scientists at the Univ of Oslo suggesting muscles can retain advantages afforded by taking anabolic steroids for decades rather than months after their use is proven beyond doubt. Kristian Gundersun, the professor in charge of the study, has already been quoted as saying that drug bans of two and four years are far too short .

The findings come at a time when athletes such as Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay are performing feats on the track that have made many chafe given their previous offences and suspensions and, though Tygart defends their right to race given they have served their time under rule, he accepts the Norwegian study could be a game-changer.

“If it is proven to a reasonable scientific certainty the benefit lasted longer than what most scientists will tell you they believe today, which is six to 12 months depending on how much is used and for how long etc, then, yeah. Put in lifetime bans if that is what it will take and if these athletes can get a permanent advantage from (drugs). But let’s have that discussion right through the process. We can’t change the rule mid-stream.

His is a job that could make a man very cynical very quickly, but Tygart talks passionately, if carefully, about what it is he does and why he does it. His cheeriness cuts through some carefully constructed answers that have clearly been delivered hundreds of times before. Maybe it’s his stated delight at being back in Ireland where he toured as part of his post-college European adventure 21 years ago. He had already been to Galway and Belfast was ticked off before the flight home, too. Or maybe it is just because he has, almost implausibly, retained his enthusiasm for sport despite having spent a dozen years uncovering its most repulsive secrets.

“Yeah. You do (still love it). For sure. You have to. And the athletes deserve that. You have to have confidence that they are held to the highest standard. Not all are in the world, but you hope that they are held to the highest standard and you sit back and you enjoy the beauty of what sport is supposed to be.

“That’s hopefully what the public does as well because it is unfair to those athletes who are clean otherwise. Just because someone has a great performance shouldn’t (lead to) a conclusion, by even a casual sports fan, that they have done something against the rules to get it.”

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