By John Mehaffey
LONDON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - A crooked path littered with empty vials and used syringes concluding in a televised confession of systematic doping led Lance Armstrong into the company of the infamous dope cheats who have sullied their sports.
Armstrong told chat show host Oprah Winfrey on Thursday he had taken banned performance-enhancing drugs on each of his record seven Tour de France wins. He said they included erythropoietin, the drug at the centre of the 1998 Tour de France doping scandal, human growth hormone and blood doping.
The 41-year-old American joins sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones whose achievements are forever tarnished by the Faustian bargain they struck with the drug pedlars.
Jones, the poster girl for the 2000 Sydney Olympics after announcing she planned to go one better than Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis and win five gold medals, also appeared on the Oprah show in 2008.
After she won three golds in Sydney and earned millions of dollars from prize money and endorsements, Jones's life eventually fell apart. Following years of denial, she served a six-month prison sentence after admitting she had used performance-enhancing drugs before and during the Games.
On the Oprah show, a woman hitherto always composed and controlled in public, wept while insisting that she was unaware she had been given banned drugs by her coach Trevor Graham.
"I thought I was taking a supplement," she said. "Never knowingly did I take performance-enhancing drugs."
Jones did accept a measure of blame, but only for "not being more careful with the people I associated with and not questioning people more".
She strained credibility to breaking point when she said she thought everybody in Sydney "was drug free, including myself".
The sniffling continued when Jones read a letter sent from prison to her children in which she explained that her persistent lying stemmed from a lack of self-respect.
It was carefully calculated material for a confessional television show but the damage had long been done.
"Marion Jones will be remembered as one of the biggest frauds in sporting history," said International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) president Lamine Diack.
General cynicism over Jones from those with a passing knowledge of drugs in sport had their origins in Sydney after Jones's then husband, the world shot put champion C.J. Hunter, pulled out before the Olympics began, citing injury.
Late withdrawals from major track and field competitions always spark suspicion and the scepticism was confirmed when it was announced during the Games that Hunter had tested positive four times for huge quantities of the anabolic steroid nandrolone in the previous year.
Hunter, who was present in Sydney with his wife, cried during a news conference where he denied taking drugs with Jones standing expressionless at his side. Among their entourage was former jazz musician Victor Conte, who had played bass with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and was now enjoying a lucrative career as a self-proclaimed nutritionist at the BALCO laboratory in California.
Conte was, in reality, at the centre of a lucrative doping programme, which was exposed when Graham, for reasons still unclear, sent a syringe of a previously unknown drug to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Tests revealed a steroid specifically designed to fool the testers, dubbed tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), which was produced and distributed by BALCO.
The BALCO scandal eventually claimed several high-profile athletes, including Jones's next partner Tim Montgomery, the world 100 metres record holder. The scope of its operations and influence make the key phrase in USADA's statement about Armstrong all the more damning.
Armstrong was, USADA said, at the centre of the "most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen".
Designed to capture the headlines, the USADA soundbite sidesteps the drug regimes of the 1950s when eastern bloc schoolchildren were fed steroids in order to produce a master race of athletes at the height of the Cold War when the medals table was viewed as a symbol of national virility.
In the following decade the bodybuilding culture in California produced similar results in the speed and strength events at the heart of the summer Olympic Games.
A Canadian coach who had competed at the 1972 Munich Olympics took due note.
Charlie Francis concluded it was impossible for any athlete to compete at the elite level without drugs.
Consequently, in September 1981, he placed Jamaican-born sprinter Johnson on a steroid regime he calculated would add one percent to his performance over 100 metres.
The results were a world record at the 1987 world championships and another at the Seoul Olympics in the following year.
However, Johnson tested positive for steroids after winning the Olympic 100 title, provoking an international scandal and a Canadian government inquiry in 1989 which revealed in chilling detail the drug regimes Francis's athletes had employed.
Track and field, the central sport of the Olympic Games, has never fully recovered its credibility and both Francis, who died in 2010, and Conte continued to assert that drug abuse in elite sport was endemic.
"The systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports for more than 50 years has punted performance standards clear out of sight," Francis said in 2000, the year of Jones's Sydney triumphs. "So far out of sight that no human can attain them without chemical assistance." (Editing by Clare Fallon)