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A Postcard From Brooklyn: Our introduction to the Floyd Fairness Fund

The Floyd Fairness Fund arrived at the Brooklyn Brewery Wednesday February 7. Unless you were in the know, the Brooklyn, NY event was under the radar. The FFF site, had mention of it, but the real work was done by local cyclists who spread the word on local websites and listservs. The event was listed as a “Town Hall Fundraiser,” and was informational, political, and designed to build grassroots support for the cause.

The Floyd Fairness Fund was first announced in January. It was “established to support Floyd Landis in his efforts to clear his name of unsubstantiated doping allegations by providing him with the means to attain a fair and just hearing.” The executive director is Michael Henson, a former racer and former Tour of California spokesperson that have been acting as Landis’ spokesperson since the announcement of the positive drug test at the Tour; the trustee is long-time Landis coach and advisor Arnie Baker. The chairman is Brian Rafferty, a New Yorker and masters bike racer, and the organization is run out of his office. The Brooklyn Brewery is just that, a microbrewery located in the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. The brewery has sponsored a local cycling club, has hosted roller races, and has a beverage for which Floyd is known and his fans can appreciate.

Some 200 people paid $35 a head to hear what Floyd and his team had to say. John Eustice of Sparta Cycling was the master of ceremonies. Convened was a panel with Floyd Landis headlining and his support team giving the nitty-gritty of the message. The team consisted of Maurice Suh, a lawyer on Landis’ defense team, Arnie Baker, doctor and early Landis coach, Rafferty, and Henson. They introduced themselves and their reason for involvement, each telling a piece of the story. The centerpiece of the effort was Dr. Baker’s PowerPoint presentation of the Landis medical defense (PDF), the so-called Wiki Defense that was released October 12, 2006, and is available online. More documents are available on the FFF site.The presentation lasted about 20 minutes and was largely Dr. Baker giving shape to the slides he had already published and presented at the Tour de Tucson and the Landis Power Camp.

After the presentation was finished, Eustice took the microphone and solicited questions from the audience. There was no shortage of people who had things to ask and things to say. One person asked Floyd if he doped. “No,” was the answer. Lots prefaced their questions by expressing support for Floyd and appreciation for his success at the Tour. A few offbeat questions were posed regarding leg hair length and multi-vitamin and herb use, and some others, but most of the questions seemed to resemble one another. The subtext to the questions was individuals trying to help Floyd or they present a better case for Floyd’s innocence. There was lots of criticism of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and it’s chief, Dick Pound, either directly or indirectly. Not much “blame the French” sentiment expressed. The crowd was clearly on Floyd’s side. There were a few videographers in the audience as well as some newspaper correspondents, and a few of them got in questions, like the New York correspondent for a Norwegian newspaper who was also a bike racer, but most seemed just to listen.

The event was not covered in the electronic cycling press and received minimal attention from mainstream press outlets. The New York Times ran a short item on the event in the next day’s sports pages. The co-author, Juliet Macur, is an expert on the subject, having broken the story about Frankie Andreu’s doping. The International Herald Tribune, which is owned by The Times, ran a photo and story from the Bloomberg News Service. The New York Daily News also included mention of the event in a story on a drug test to detect Human Growth Hormone.

Since the scripted portion of the evening was pretty much a three-dimensional presentation of what’s on the FFF site and the media didn’t cover them, it’s important to discuss the audience. The diverse crowd seemed to have a pretty wide cross section of the New York cycling community. Bike racers, messengers, shop owners, race promoters, a former pro team president, avid cyclists, and Fans of Floyd. There were certainly a contingent that came not to support Floyd but because they were interested in a spectacle—it’s not often that a Tour de France winner comes to a bar in New York City. They got it. Maybe not the love-fest Lance Armstrong would have gotten if he had come to the Brooklyn Brewery after winning the Tour in 1999, but an impressive turnout for a disputed Tour champ on a sub-freezing school night.

This was a great setting for Floyd. He was comfortable, articulate, and happy to speak at length on most topics. He deferred when it seemed like his assembled experts were better suited to answer the question posed, though it seemed like he could have done just as well as his experts. It was a far cry from his oft-televised and reported hesitant and changing denials when the news first broke after the Tour. Landis had always been a chatty and interesting interview, but his conversational skills and intelligence seemed to elude him when the dope-addled media scrutiny started. That was not a good impression to leave with people, and it was if we’re seeing the old Floyd again.

There was the sense that the assembled crowd could have asked questions all night, but the questions were cut off after over an hour. It was time for fund-raising auctions. Posters, bottles of Jack Daniels, Phonak jerseys and hats, and even a Tour de France Yellow Jersey were auctioned off. The maillot jaune went for around $2,000, the other items less.

And the evening continued. Floyd moved to a table to autograph whatever people put in front of him and people could get their picture taken with him for $20, or for free if they bought a FFF t-shirt for $25. As one person said, that’s like getting a t-shirt for $5. The line was long. Even many of the skeptical lined up for the opportunity. Floyd was in good spirits throughout and seemed happy to pose with whomever, wearing or holding whatever was put in front of him. He gave the sense he would happily have gone all night. The news media have speculated on whether or Armstrong will enter politics. Landis seems to have the necessary touch as well, then again, since most of the appreciation for American Tour de France winners is limited to overseas mania, it might be nice to have it at home.

In all, the evening raised about $15,000. It might sound like something, but it’s hard to imagine the event did much more than meet expenses. Even if Baker is donating his time, the lawyer is probably billing by the hour, and then the flight and hotel bills to cover. But there’s clearly something larger at stake for Landis.

It’s hard to say what that is. Yes, the obvious reason is to clear his name, but in order to do so, he doesn’t need to win over a public that already believes him. He needs to win over the arbitrators on the United States Anti-Doping Association (USADA) hearing panel, which will be convened May 14. And it’s hard to see a purely political event doing that. Floyd will have the arbiter he picked in his corner, he’ll have the USADA-picked arbiter, who presumably will be sympathetic to USADA’s position, and then everything will hinge of the third arbiter. The third party has to be agreed upon by the first two arbiters. These Town Hall meetings are a long, hard way to convince that third person of his innocence. Maybe there’s the hope that even if he’s guilty, he’ll save his cycling career in terms of his American market potential.

Henson, the spokesperson and FFF executive director says the effort is more than just about Floyd. “This is an effort not only for Floyd but for athlete advocacy. We want to see this go forward. Whatever happens, however this plays out will effect how it goes. This is a watershed case. It’s a important fight, one we believe in, and one Floyd believes in.”

Though it didn’t come up in the Q&A and few seemed familiar with it, there’s a Los Angeles Times multi-part investigative series on WADA that probably does more for the Landis defense than Landis’ team ever could. (Part 1: “Athletes’ unbeatable foe”, Part 2: Athletes see doping case appeals as futile exercise.) Tyler Hamilton, the other prominent American cyclist caught doping even referred to it on his website, stating “Ironically, of all the journalists who planted themselves in my living room for up to 6 or 8 hours at a clip, had access to my legal team and all of my experts — none were able to summarize the central arguments at the heart of my case better than Michael A. Hiltzik (author of the articles), a man I’ve never met or spoken to in my life. He has written the article we had hoped so many before him would write.”

Also not mentioned at the event, though surely known by the protagonists is that Landis publicly agreed to not race in France in 2007. It was reported the following day. This agreement, while it costs him the chance to defend his Tour title, a long shot in the best of circumstances (considering his hip and the pending case), it also gives him a chance to defend himself in France against doping charges, which would, if found guilty, prevent him from racing in France. Reading the reports of French officials, it seems like they’re still thinking about Landis as that guy who didn’t acquit himself well when the positive test was made public.

While Floyd looked definitely uncomfortable and possibly guilty in the days following the announcement of the failed test, momentum seems to be swinging in his favor. The Wiki Defense document is interesting and thorough-seeming. It demonstrates what appear to be problems with the test and the results. The LA Times pieces could also undermine the credibility of WADA in the public eye, and might have an effect on USADA as well. Of course, WADA and USADA, for what they believe is fairness, do not release any information regarding the case. Landis’ tactic is unprecedented, giving the public a fresh eye into how the system works. Considering that the ADA’s don’t officially release evidence, there’s a chance that WADA and USADA are withholding information that could refute the Floyd team assertions.

One tactic that team Landis is working is calling into question American funding of anti-doping organizations. (Read about it here) They’re asking people to write their elected officials to complain about WADA and USADA. They say it’s because they want the due process that Americans expect from their government, and the due process and fairness that the ADA’s claim to champion and seemingly ignore, but it’s hard not to imagine some people calling for defunding the organizations. And it is this sort of thing where FFF seems really smart. This isn’t Hamilton’s chimera or vanishing twin, this is an American who they want you to believe is getting railroaded. What’s confusing is that Floyd is the first name of the organization yet they’re discussing fairness for all athletes. Even their slogan plays on this “What’s Fair is Clear.”

The first thought is that the slogan is some sort of oblique reference. Possibly clearing Landis of all charges, that the test should have come through clear, not marked up. But it’s probably functioning on the most obvious level, that after reviewing the Wiki Defense, dropping charges is clearly the only fair outcome. Unfortunately, we had a less kind reference pop into our head. “The clear,” one of the magic substances that BALCO gave to athletes, an illegal substance that wasn’t detected for a long time.

While there are many people who support fairness for all and have reasons to question Floyd’s guilt, it’s hard to imagine these people are the ones coming out to events like this one. It makes us think of those who believed in Tyler Hamilton. Do they still believe? Do they feel burned by Tyler? It makes us think of those Richard Virenque fans. Virenque is still huge in France, Champion, the sponsor of the polka-dot jersey has him at their booth in the Tour. He has a huge line of supporters queuing up for his autograph, and he admitted to doping. It’s nice to say we want fairness, but maybe it’s that we would prefer to believe in our heroes rather than wanting what is fair.

Landis’ battle with the ADA’s continues. USADA wants to test Floyd’s Tour de France “B” samples that were untested because the “A” samples came up negative. Floyd won’t release the samples. Story on Velonews.com. Since the WADA rules are that negative “A” samples don’t trigger a follow-up test, it’s hard to see how violating protocol is fair, but maybe it would prove Floyd’s innocence—or guilt. Read the whole story, there’s a quote from Tygart that makes it seem as if they know they’re losing the public relations battle.

Head spinning yet? We’ve been prolix, have tossed lots of info your way, and haven’t come to a conclusion. As much as this should be about cold science, like all human endeavors, this gets to be just as much about people. We look for human reasons, a narrative, to explain why Floyd is innocent or guilty. It’s the human element that caused the leaking of the information before it should have been made public; probably someone wanted to ensure the information was made public and not hidden. It’s the human element that the FFF is appealing to in their Town Hall meetings. They could just as easily place ads on several high-traffic cycling-related websites and reach more people and probably raise more money with less effort, but that almost certainly won’t create an emotional attachment to Floyd and his innocence.

We have plenty of reasons to doubt WADA. Floyd is a likeable presence. His personal story is inspiring and his ride on Stage 17 is one for the ages. That noted, with the exception of the leak and pronouncements by Pound, the WADA/USADA side has yet to be heard. And that means the story isn’t complete and any conclusions should probably be hedged. As one blog devoted to the affaire Landis is called, Trust But Verify.

The FFF is making his innocence a national project. Three more of these fund-raising events are scheduled to run during the Tour of California, in cities hosting stage finishes. This might do a better job of reaching the cycling press, and the international cycling press as well. Stay tuned.