As the trial date in United States of America ex rel. Floyd Landis v. Tailwind Sports Corp. et al lurched within sight after almost eight years, it was tempting to speculate whether Lance Armstrong might roll the dice and put himself in front of a jury.
Convicting a celebrity, even a tarnished one, is hard, and Armstrong always has been a risk-taker. In his biggest gamble, he built a global brand and amassed a nine-figure fortune betting that he wouldn't be caught having used banned substances to win the Tour de France seven times. A good chunk of that wealth has been plowed back into legal fees and settlements with various entities since 2013, when Armstrong confessed to performance-enhancing drug use after years of staunch, acerbic denials and retribution against those who accused him.
Armstrong fought the government's civil fraud case aggressively. One working and unproven theory why is that he simply could not stand to see its original plaintiff, former teammate Floyd Landis, get a dime.
Armstrong's lawyers contended that doping was endemic in cycling, and that the U.S. Postal Service -- whose stylized eagle logo became synonymous with Armstrong's success -- must have known what it was getting into as a sponsor, and on balance profited far more than it suffered from the association with a dominant team. Had the trial gone forward, the defense would have been permitted to introduce evidence related to the team's marketing value pre-scandal, a ruling that gave Armstrong some bargaining leverage at crunch time.
Yet pragmatism won the predictable bunch sprint at the finish, and an extraordinary case ended Thursday as many ordinary ones do, with an agreement finalized days before jury selection was to start on May 1 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Armstrong will pay $5 million to the government -- of which Landis will receive $1.1 million -- and an additional $1.65 million for legal fees for Landis' lawyer, Paul D. Scott. That result will forever be picked over as too little or too much, given the polarizing nature of the characters.
"I'm relieved it's over," 42-year-old Landis told ESPN. "I really didn't want to relive it in a courtroom, and I don't think Lance did, either, and I don't know that that would have really accomplished anything. Rather than going through that humiliation again, we're better off -- I mean, it was up to Lance, but I think he probably feels the same way.
"He benefited more than everyone else, and he's also paid more than everyone else."
Under the False Claims Act, Armstrong could have been responsible for a maximum of three times $32 million, the total amount of the U.S. Postal Service sponsorship that bankrolled his first six Tour wins. But Scott told ESPN that $100 million was a "pie-in-the-sky" number that was never in play.
"When you're trying to resolve a case like this, you have to consider what's realistic for an individual to pay," he said. "And in this case, there were rulings by the court that allowed him to get credit for the public relations benefits of the sponsorship, even though the [Postal Service] was receiving those benefits under the false impression that he was riding clean.
"We may not have agreed with that, but those facts were out there, and we had to consider them in arguing the merits of the case. Our objective was real accountability, and this is real money, let alone the millions of dollars he had to spend to defend this case for eight years with some of the best lawyers in the country."
Landis said he doesn't expect to have a lot of money left over after taxes and repaying more than $400,000 he still owes people he defrauded by fundraising for his defense after his own doping bust right after winning the 2006 Tour. Under the terms of a 2012 agreement with federal authorities in San Diego, criminal charges were deferred and then dropped with the proviso that Landis reimburse donors, no matter how long it took.
The prospect that some of Armstrong's earnings will be indirectly disbursed to Landis' duped supporters is doubtless not a pleasant notion for Armstrong, and his formal statement reflected ambivalence. Armstrong said he was happy to "make peace" with the Postal Service, but in the next sentence declared the lawsuit "without merit and unfair." Through his personal spokesman, Mark Higgins, Armstrong declined to comment further Thursday.
Tyler Hamilton, who rode with Armstrong and Landis and recounted his descent into doping and depression in his 2013 book "The Secret Race," would have been among several high-profile witnesses summoned to Washington to testify in the case. He had mixed feelings about the settlement.
"There's part of me that's relieved and glad it's over for everyone involved," Hamilton said from his home in Montana. "It's dragged on so long, and that takes its toll.
"But honestly, I did want to see this go to court. I wanted to testify, and I wanted to hear other people under oath, for the whole culture of the sport. We would have learned a lot. It gives Lance and the sport an easy out. Everyone wants to move on, but there's still a lot of work to be done."
Most of the documents in the case are sealed and thousands of pages of depositions kept confidential under the terms of a protective order issued early in the case, which the government joined in 2013. Their contents might indeed unlock a few new facts. But a much greater truth has been exposed since Landis breached the code of silence back in 2010 and took his allegations to cycling and anti-doping officials.
Armstrong and Landis, two stubborn, gifted men who could channel anger into fuel on the bike, might agree on almost nothing. (According to Landis, Armstrong glared when Landis tried to shake hands the last time they met in court, saying, "I don't think so.") But they have both praised the Oscar-winning documentary "Icarus" as confirmation of their cynicism about the structure of international sports. Landis was especially galled to see former UCLA lab chief Don Catlin -- a witness for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in Landis' 2007 arbitration -- featured as initially willing to assist director Bryan Fogel in drug experimentation. Catlin backed out and introduced Fogel to eventual Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, who masterminded doping protocols and testing sabotage at the Sochi 2014 Games.
Despite three years' worth of investigations and evidence, Russia has incurred few consequences for its fraud -- a stark contrast to the way individual athletes accused of doping are treated. The old narrative of good sheriffs pursuing bad, PED-riddled athletes has been demolished by the Russian doping scandal and the cascading revelations of poor governance, conflicts of interest and outright corruption in international sports.
There might be no such thing as perfect justice for a pair of riders who competed and cheated more than a decade ago, or any easy way to reduce relative morality to dollar amounts in a legal document. But there is definitely no fairness in a system that lets an entire country off the hook. Meanwhile, cycling is still struggling with suspicions about superteams.
"The sad thing is that it still ended up being just the athletes," Landis said of the fallout from his era. "I had some hope at that point that people might say, 'Yeah, Floyd's guilty, but look at the system.' It's not an attempt to make sports fair, and it never was and it's never going to be. It's about protecting the Olympics."
Thursday's announcement marked the end of unfinished business and official terminus for the blue train, as Postal's lineup was known in its heyday. Its two most contentious personalities had already started moving on. Landis has found personal stability with a partner, a young daughter and a Colorado-based business selling marijuana-derived products for pain relief. Armstrong, 46, a podcast host, event organizer and father of five, is free of legal encumbrances at last and facing an open road nearly 20 years after he returned to cycling as a cancer survivor with an uncertain future. It's only natural to wonder where he'll put his chips next.