Lance Armstrong may have rebuffed the charges of countless fierce riders during the Tour de France, but he is about to face a man more relentless than himself.
His name is Jeff Novitzky, and the cyclist famed for his astounding resilience and endurance is in for the second fight of his life.
In the chaotic days after the media reported that e-mails from Floyd Landis charged that Armstrong and other members of the U.S. Postal team were guilty of sports doping, the seven-time Tour de France champion, top cycling officials, sponsors and other implicated cyclists have fired back.
Pat McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union told the New York Times that, "I feel sorry for the guy [Landis] because I don't accept anything he says as true... He has an agenda and is obviously out to seek revenge." Team Radio Shack's lawyer posted a statement on it's website, suggesting that Armstrong and the other accused riders, "have responded by pointing out that the contradictory and disjointed accusations from a confessed liar are baseless and untrue." Armstrong boldly countered: "He has no proof. It's just our word against theirs, and we like our word. We like where we stand."
But these are only words. Just as Tiger crashed his SUV and emerged bloodied one fateful night last November, Armstrong crashed his bike the day Landis's accusations landed. Bristling invective aside, he can't possibly like where he stands today.
There is an old truth that politicians and athletes tend to learn too late: "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up." Few seasoned sports fans will be surprised in the coming months and years when we see all too clearly that the corporate fairy tale of American cycling - buoyed by the support of millions of self-deluded fans who bought into the myth - appears to have been built on lies.
As a journalist who for the better part of two years made regular jaunts to a San Francisco federal courtroom and watched countless athletes dragged through the BALCO steroids scandal, I can't help noting how celebrity jocks keep failing to learn this lesson.
Memo to Lance: Drug investigations are built on the testimony and evidence of men and women who take drugs. They are rarely nice people. They often lie, in part or in whole, but their testimony often leads to snaring the big fish.
Steroids investigations are not popularity contests or tests of spin control. Investigations are not "our word against theirs," especially when Agent Novitzky wants your scalp.
Consider the case of Barry Bonds. I first wrote about the basketball tall investigator in 2004, when he began his remarkable transformation from a minor IRS agent into the Eliot Ness of national sports doping. Armstrong's handlers would do well to do a little early summer reading. Novitzky revels in breaking with convention. He rummaged through Victor Conte's trash to find evidence of doping, and when two fellow investigators confronted him with questions about his conduct, he shut them out of the investigation.
Sports doping in America doesn't appear to have been a crime before Novitzky. But lie to the federal agent, as the Olympian gold medalist Marion Jones did, and you may go to prison. A federal grand jury has proved a less direct path to conviction. Although our deficit laden federal government is believed to have spent $50 million to purify sports leagues that generate billions of dollars of private profits, it has so far failed to bring down Novitzky's biggest target, Barry Bonds. That case hinged on whether the slugger lied to a grand jury about performance enhancement drugs. As Novitzky assumes the central position in what is shaping up as a major sports doping investigation of American cycling, his past is worth recounting.
Early on in the Bonds inquiry, Novitzky was himself investigated by federal agents. Prosecutors claim the agent was cleared, but defense lawyers for Bonds made an issue of Novitzky's conduct in open court, and successfully argued that the complete file be made public. By then Novitzky had already left the IRS and found a new home at the FDA.
Last February, shortly after the investigation of Novitzky became public, the Bonds case collapsed. At the eleventh hour prosecutors appealed one of the judge's rulings, and abandoned a chance to go to trial. The case remains in limbo and appears all but dead. Barry Bonds has retired and the prosecutors seem to have lost their appetites for sports doping cases.
Jeff Novitzky may be a Special Agent with the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, but he is not a cop or an FBI agent. He's a hero to some and a zealot to others, and while BALCO prosecutors may have lost their thirst for the battle, Novitzky appears to have found an eager new patron in the FDA. He is reportedly talking to cyclists and Armstrong's ex-wife. We are likely to soon read all about it. Throughout his meteoric career Agent Jeff Novitzky has been a master at using the media.
Lance Armstrong had better shrug off his bruises and get back on that bike in a hurry. He's going to have to ride faster and farther than ever before.
Jonathan Littman is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE! (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Marc Hershon. A Contributing Editor at Playboy, Jonathan is the co-author of the best selling Art of Innovation.