Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France's most decorated rider, is on a collision course with the longest running sports doping investigation in history.
Cycling fans that imagined the 8-year-old BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) crusade died when the government passed up the chance to bring Barry Bonds to trial nearly a year and a half ago, have been hit with sobering news. BALCO and its creator, the former IRS agent Jeff Novitzky, have been reborn and given a new federal carte blanche to take on an entirely new sport.
Eight years ago, agent Jeff Novitzky veered the IRS into strange and uncharted territory. Instead of exposing multi-billion dollar tax cheats, the tall, intrepid agent masterminded a massive $50 million investigation of doping in major league baseball that also swept up a handful of track stars and NFL players. But it was never clear what any of this had to do with the Internal Revenue Service.
So it goes with BALCO The Sequel, orchestrated by a familiar personality, Novitzky, but backed by a new patron, the FDA, an agency that seems equally unsuited to investigate sports doping. Take a look for yourself: the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations website lists what it investigates -- everything from the manufacture and sale of counterfeit or unapproved drugs, to illegal diversion of pharmaceuticals and crimes involving the adulteration and/or misbranding of food.
Nowhere does it list blood doping or sports doping as one of the crimes it enforces. The FDA is supposed to focus on "conduct that may present a danger to the public health." But this apparent inconsistency should not bring comfort to Lance Armstrong fans. Just as the IRS claimed jurisdiction in BALCO through trumped up, trivial money laundering charges that never resulted in a conviction, the FDA appears to be cooking up creative ways for the agency to broaden its investigative reach.
The central fiction in the original BALCO will likely be repeated in the sequel. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the FDA investigation into U.S. cycling "isn't aimed at prosecuting rank-and-file riders who used performance enhancing drugs during their careers. Rather it is designed to potentially bring charges against any team leaders and team directors who may have facilitated or encouraged doping by their riders."
Athletes were not the "official" targets of BALCO either, but several who gave what the government believed to be false statements to Novitzky or the grand jury found themselves under federal indictments.
U.S. Postal team riders who appear to be cooperating with Novitzky are quickly learning the lay of the land. The only safe ride requires you to betray your coaches, trainers, sponsors and most of all, the figurehead of the sport -- the man who was never rank-and-file.
Just as BALCO was powered by tens of millions of dollars of federal taxpayer money that funded a long running grand jury, countless raids and search warrants, extensive travel, and costly experts, BALCO The Sequel appears likely to outspend the original.
Joining the high concept project is Los Angeles Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Miller, one of the directors from the original team, the same prosecutor who helped Novitzky gain search warrants, including a SWAT team raid of the home of BALCO founder Victor Conte.
Like all sequels, this one offers the federal actors the potential of headlines, money, and fame. BALCO The Sequel wouldn't be green-lighted if the deep pocket producer -- the U.S. Justice Department -- didn't believe it couldn't eclipse BALCO at the box office.
International cycling, of course, has had its share of previous investigations, among them Operacion Puerto, a Spanish doping case begun in 2006 against a doctor and a number of accomplices and cyclists.
But Spain is in the hinterlands compared to Hollywood. This American investigation is bound to rock the sport like nothing ever before.
The trap has been set. Lance Armstrong and his team of high-priced lawyers are hard at work, anticipating the most likely plot twists and turns that lie ahead in this blockbuster.
BALCO The Sequel is going to be very, very big.
The big question is whether Armstrong can ride his way out of this mess.