Commentary

Confession, character and Floyd Landis

The irony in his accusations is that he isn't credible enough to make a real difference

Originally Published: May 20, 2010
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

Floyd LandisGabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesFloyd Landis swore to tell the truth at his 2007 arbitration hearing. What oath is he swearing now?

Thank you, Floyd Landis. No, not for the confession that rippled around the world today, which will bring us years of new rocks to turn over and books to write and jobs to keep.

Well, OK, yeah; thanks for that.

But more importantly, thanks for reminding us that we can still be interested in doping cases, because being blasÚ was getting kind of boring. What's so fascinating about this confession isn't that Landis admits using testosterone patches, EPO and other banned drugs over the course of a decade. It's how he arrived at the moment of lonely desperation when, with his back against the wall, he became ready to scorch the earth.

[+] EnlargeFloyd Landis
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty ImagesVictory was sweet for Landis at the 2006 Tour de France. The feeling didn't last long.

Landis seems to belong to that clinical breed of sociopath who doesn't feel guilt and whose vast reservoir of competitive willpower let him keep lying through a long and remarkable public relations campaign to clear his name. For those who have forgotten, he went on a tear after testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone at the 2006 Tour de France, accusing the drug testers who nabbed him of being corrupt, taking on an entire system that is built on the premise that athletes who test positive are guilty unless they can prove otherwise. He wrapped himself in the U.S. Constitution and the American flag, claiming to be fighting for all "falsely accused" athletes. (As it turns out, his beef is that they were pursuing him for the wrong thing; he still insists he wasn't taking testosterone but was hopped up on HGH.)

There were seeds of honor in that fight, and Landis cannily exploited a boy-next-door image to use them for his own purposes. Since the episode came on the heels of another say-it-ain't-so cycling story -- anyone remember Tyler Hamilton? -- American race fans genuinely ached to believe Floyd. In February 2007, an MSNBC poll of 35,000 people found that 68 percent thought he was "totally innocent of doping."

But then a hearing panel found the aw-shucks cyclist from Farmersville, Pa., guilty of doping, his myriad appeals failed, and we became less interested in him. There were bigger icons whose falls seemed more interesting: Marion Jones, who was sentenced to a six-month prison term in 2008, and -- God bless him -- Roger Clemens, who just couldn't shut up.

Floyd struggled for relevance. He made a cameo appearance in the movie "Bigger Stronger, Faster," maintaining his victim's pose. (Its director, Chris Bell, e-mailed me this morning to say, "He lied right to my face.") He signed on as an advisor to a merry band of cycling pirates known as Rock Racing. When his doping ban ended, he tried to race in the 2009 Tour of California and finished 23rd among a field of 84. This year, his third-rate team couldn't even make it into the race.

[+] EnlargeFloyd Landis' book
Jim Spellman/WireImageThe title of Landis' 2007 book takes on a different tone after this week's confession.

It's tempting to imagine the 34-year-old Landis sitting at home on Wednesday, watching Dave Zabriskie take Stage 4 of the race in Modesto for the Garmin-Transitions team and thinking "Gotcha." After all, his e-mails to cycling and anti-doping officials finger Zabriskie, a former teammate whom he claims he showed how to use EPO before one Tour of California.

Landis has all but admitted watching the calendar, counting down the days until the World Anti-Doping Agency's eight-year statute of limitations on drug crimes expires.

"If I don't say something now, then it's pointless to ever say it," he told ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford.

In other words, if he can't be racing, then no one should.

And so the dam finally broke. The most interesting thing about doping cases is never the crime itself. It's the gory details, the police procedural part about how they unravel. In the BALCO scandal, the thread was pulled by a jealous track coach, Trevor Graham, who'd been cut out of getting the best new drugs. Marion Jones ended up in jail because she lied to federal agents about how her heroin-dealing ex-boyfriend, Tim Montgomery, cashed millions of dollars in stolen or forged checks.

In a meeting with the media in California on Thursday, Lance Armstrong suggested that Landis might have been aiming to use the e-mails to blackmail his way back into racing. Maybe. Or maybe Landis just had enough of being the fall guy, which, while not the most original motivation, is just fine for the foreseeable future's worth of headlines.

Another of his e-mails accuses Armstrong of helping him use steroid patches, blood doping and human growth hormone.

Lance Armstrong
AP Photo/Laurent ReboursLandis just put Lance Armstrong back into a familiar position: defending himself.

"He and I had lengthy discussions about it on our training rides during which time he also explained to me the evolution of EPO testing and how transfusions were now necessary due to the inconvenience of the new test," Landis wrote in an e-mail to Stephen Johnson, the head of USA Cycling.

But once we get past the voyeurism of a man at his breaking point, what's really left?

The real beauty of this admission -- and it's worth standing back and appreciating -- is that Landis is getting back at all his enemies in one fell swoop.

Look at it from the perspective of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which went after Landis hammer-and-tongs against strong headwinds. (At the time, I was one of those who accused it of overreaching in his case.) What is the agency supposed to do with hearsay testimony from a witness when they have a mountain of impeachment material on him?

Who's going to back him up?

And let's not forget: This is the same Landis who can't set foot in France because of an arrest warrant on behalf of a judge seeking to question him in an investigation of a murky plot to hack into the computers of the French lab that accused him of doping. At his hearing, Landis used e-mails from the lab to try to show that it mishandled his urine samples, sparking a nasty public fight.

You almost have to feel sorry for Pat McQuaid, the president of cycling's main international body, Union Cycliste Internationale, whose reaction to Wednesday's news was: "These guys coming out now with things like this from the past is only damaging the sport. If they've any love for the sport, they wouldn't do it."

[+] EnlargeFloyd Landis and Lance Armstrong
AP Photo/Bernard Papon, PoolThey rode together at the 2004 Tour de France. What do you suppose they discussed?

(It's worth contrasting that with the reaction USA Track & Field CEO Doug Logan had last month when his 400-meter star, LaShawn Merritt, was found to have tested positive for PEDs three times. "He brings shame to himself and his teammates," Logan said.)

Landis must love to see McQuaid twisting, just as he must love putting the USADA in such an untenable position. In his e-mails, he says the agency that was right about him all along is really toothless, and its anti-doping efforts are a "charade."

In other words, he's gone from saying it's too powerful and draconian to not serious enough.

How's that for a convenient conversion?

It's that credibility problem that will make Floyd Landis a lousy witness.

But isn't that what makes his coming out so brilliant? Floyd can tear down his rivals without really reforming anything. He says he wants to clear his conscience. That's the true sign of a sociopath.

Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the co-author, with Mike Mooneyham, of "Sex, Lies and Headlocks, the Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment." His latest book is "Steroid Nation," available here.

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• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"