Background on the Lance Armstrong affair, as it was at the time of our 2012 September October magazine.
Ever since his momentous come-from-the-dead return to win the 1999 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong’s achievements have polarised not just the cycling or the sporting world but the world at large. Few, if any, sit on the fence when it comes to Big Tex and whether or not he doped. But with fresh, damning allegations this May from the US Anti-Doping Agency, Judgement Day appears nigh for world’s most recognisable sporting figure. Anthony Tan reports.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
– Dr. Joseph Goebbels, 1897-1945, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda
There is some contention as to whether Goebbels did indeed make such a brazen statement. But in reference to formal allegations of doping brought by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) against Lance Armstrong it is particularly salient, regardless of whether Hitler’s infamous spin doctor said it or not. The question remains, though: just who is lying? Because the lie has been repeated ad infinitum, most of you have already made up your mind. Few, if any, sit on the fence. In the court of public opinion he has already been tried. But if you knew what USADA knew, would you be inclined to think or care otherwise?
On June 12 this year, USADA sent a fifteen-page letter to Armstrong and five former associates, including former team manager and the man considered to be the architect behind his seven consecutive Tour de France victories, Johan Bruyneel, as well as the Texan’s former controversial sports trainer, Dr Michele Ferrari, detailing various charges against each of them. In the letter, USADA alleged that each member of the sextet “engaged in anti-doping rule violations under the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Anti-Doping rules from 1998 to present, World Anti-Doping Code from inception to present, and USADA protocol for Olympic and Paralympic Movement Testing from inception to present.”
Furthermore, said USADA, “The witnesses to the conduct described in this letter include more than ten cyclists as well as cycling team employees.”
John Fahey, the Australian president of World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), told FoxSports on June 14: “I have been aware of the investigations for some time and the likelihood that they (USADA) would proceed to give him a notice to show cause why charges shouldn’t be laid. They’ve spoken to many witnesses collecting the evidence over a considerable period of time. A lot of the anti-doping agencies work hand-in-hand with the law enforcement agencies and that certainly makes trying to catch the cheat far more effective.”
The June 12 letter, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, said that, “an important aspect of USADA’s investigation has been face-to-face meetings between USADA representatives and riders” on the United States Postal Service (1996-2004), Discovery Channel (2005-07), Astana (2009) and RadioShack (2010) cycling teams.
“With respect to Lance Armstrong, numerous riders, team personnel and others will testify based on personal knowledge acquired either through observing Armstrong dope or through Armstrong’s admissions of doping to them that Lance Armstrong used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone during the period from before 1998 through to 2005,” said the letter, “and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and HGH (human growth hormone) through 1996.”
USADA has not revealed the names of the cyclists who provided evidence against – or, conceivably though unlikely, in support of – Armstrong. But we may have an idea. On June 16, we learned that four hot prospects for the US Olympic road team for the London Games – all former teammates of Armstrong’s during his halcyon years – withdrew their names for consideration, namely Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie. “It’s unusual,” Steve Johnson, chief executive of USA Cycling, told the New York Times the following day. “To have four athletes opt out, that’s never happened, to my knowledge. The real answer is, I don’t, and we don’t, know why.”
“Any questions related to their decision should be directed to the individual athletes,” read the brief statement from USA Cycling. Unsurprisingly, so far, no athlete has responded to requests for comment regarding the case against Armstrong et al.
It should be no revelation that Armstrong denied all charges, issuing a familiar line of defence. “I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one,” he said in a June 13 statement on his website.
“That USADA ignores this fundamental distinction and charges me instead of the admitted dopers says far more about USADA, its lack of fairness and this vendetta than it does about my guilt or innocence.”
Hincapie, who is set to retire at the end of the season, is the only member to have been a part of all seven Tour victories accomplished by Armstrong from 1999-2005. He told the Associated Press earlier in the year: “They’re (USA Cycling) probably going to want me on the Olympic team. It’s not something I’m thinking about every day, but I’d love to go to a sixth Olympics.” Around the same time Vande Velde, who was on the Postal Service squad from 1998-2003, told cyclingnews.com, “I want to go to the Olympics really bad.”
The June 12 letter from USADA said that with the exception of Armstrong, “every other US rider contacted regarding doping in cycling agreed to meet with USADA to truthfully and fully describe their involvement in doping and doping by others of which they were aware”.
Essentially, this means that any of the riders who gave testimony would likely receive immunity or at the very least, a significant reduction in any ban, should they have admitted to involvement in any doping conspiracy. Anti-doping rules include a provision for athletes, past or present, that provide substantial assistance to authorities in doping investigations – up to a 75 per cent reduction of a maximum two-year punishment. There is also the WADA code’s eight-year statute of limitations. Technically, if the charges are proven, the WADA statute threatens only those involved in Armstrong’s 2004 and 2005 Tour wins. It’s also worth noting that USADA is not a law enforcement agency and lacks the power to bring criminal charges, meaning Armstrong cannot go to jail, even if found guilty.
But as almost always with Lance, it is different. USADA has said that because Armstrong has waived his right to the WADA statute “through false statements, fraudulent concealment or other wrongful conduct”, all seven Tour victories are under threat of annulment including a lifetime Olympic ban. What’s really at stake here, however, is a monumental loss of face, and a fairytale legacy cynics considered too good to be true.
Armstrong had until June 22 to formally answer the charges (just 10 days after receiving the bombshell letter from USADA) before the case was heard by the USADA Anti-Doping Review Board; a three-person panel comprised of technical, legal and medical experts. Based on evidence submitted, the review board decides whether USADA has a strong enough case to pursue charges. His legal team demanded access to evidence gathered by USADA – including a witness list and expert analysis of blood data from 2009 and 2010 the anti-doping agency claims to be “fully consistent with blood manipulation, including EPO and/or blood transfusions”.
The trigger that sparked the USADA inquiry came from a 21-month Food and Drug Administration (FDA) probe championed by star agent Jeff Novitzky, who famously blew the lid open on doping malpractice at the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) involving baseballer Barry Bonds and track-and-field star Marion Jones. For reasons not entirely known, the FDA investigation was abruptly shelved by the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles on February 3 this year, and rather bizarrely, the Friday before Super Bowl, the nation’s largest annual sporting event. “I had days where thought I was f**ked,” Armstrong told the Men’s Journal magazine in their June 2012 issue. “But I always thought the right decision would be made.”
Sure enough, on Friday June 22, an eleven-page retort was delivered to the USADA review board by Robert Luskin, one of Armstrong’s coterie of lawyers, who said USADA’s February 12 letter was “long on stale allegations disproved long ago and short on evidence” and “offensive to any notions of due process. USADA’s overly expansive view of its own authority – not to mention its smug self-regard – undoubtedly explains its threadbare charging document, its arrogant and craven refusal to disclose evidence, and its complacent expectation that the Review Board will not hold it accountable,” wrote Luskin. He recommended that the agency drop its charges “because there is no evidence to support them”, or, at the very least, “suspend consideration” until all prima facie evidence is turned over. “The Review Board must recommend that this case not move forward,” the letter said, also alleging false testimony was garnered by offering immunity, which they argue violate bribery laws.
USADA, rather unsurprisingly, did not accede to Team Armstrong’s demands or claims. In a statement released that same Friday, Travis Tygart, chief executive of the agency, said: “We follow established procedures that were approved by athletes, the US Olympic Committee and all Olympic sports organisations.”
In its June 12 letter USADA also said that anonymity of witnesses was important “to shield them from the retaliation and attempted witnesses intimidation that cooperating witnesses have faced in other matters related to the USPS conspiracy”. In June last year, when the FDA investigation was in full swing, one such incident occurred between Armstrong and former teammate-turned-key witness Tyler Hamilton in a restaurant in Aspen, Colorado. Tweeted agent Novitzky, who has not spoken publicly since the case he doggedly pursued up hill and down dale for nearly two years: “My opinion. He’s as guilty as a $3 dollar bill but (the) same as many others.”
Armstrong’s accustomed “passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one” rhetoric is also somewhat of a moot point. Although Marion Jones never tested positive, Novitzky managed to force a confession and send her to jail for lying to federal investigators and two grand juries investigating steroid use.
But Novitzky’s “same as many others” viewpoint highlights another vexed question: If we accept the notion that the majority of the peloton were ‘on it’ during Lance’s heyday, is it still cheating? Doesn’t an unfair advantage only exist if one or two apples are bad, rather than the entire barrel? Or is it the fact that Armstrong, more so than anyone, profited from this milieu that operated by way of omertà; a code of silence where anyone who spoke out and challenged the status quo were ridiculed, vilified then ostracised?
The USADA letter also alleges a cover-up Hamilton made known in a tell-all interview with CBS’s flagship current affairs show 60 Minutes in May 2011. Dr Martial Saugy, director of the Lausanne anti-doping laboratory that analysed the urine samples from the 2001 Tour of Switzerland, allegedly told USADA representatives Armstrong’s samples “were indicative of EPO use”. “Multiple witnesses have also told USADA that Lance Armstrong told them he had tested positive in 2001 and that the test result had been covered up,” the agency claims.
“I’m exploring all my options,” said Armstrong soon after the incendiary June 12 letter from USADA was leaked to the press. They’re not limited only to arbitration with USADA. I think there are other questions that need to be answered with regard to their behaviour and tactics. USADA are well known to move the goal line on you. We are entitled to certain things, certain pieces of evidence, if not all the evidence in terms of what will be in front of the review board.”
On February 12 this year in Panama, Armstrong made his return to his triathlon roots, where he finished second to New Zealander Bevan Docherty in the professional category. He since competed in four more half-Ironman events and won the last two in Florida and Hawaii, in May and June, respectively. It was his intention to partake in his first full Ironman in Nice, France on June 24, in a bid to qualify for this year’s Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on October 13.
However at the close of business June 13 on the US East Coast, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) issued a statement: “WTC has been notified that USADA has initiated its Anti-Doping Review Board Process against Lance Armstrong to determine if there is sufficient evidence of doping during his cycling career to bring forward charges of a non-analytical nature. Our rules, as stated in the WTC Professional Athlete Agreement and Waiver, dictate an athlete is ineligible to compete during an open investigation. Armstrong is therefore suspended from competing in WTC-owned and licensed races pending further review.”
Following a unanimous recommendation from the agency’s independent review board, on Friday June 29 – the eve of the Tour de France Grand Départ in Liège – USADA filed formal doping charges against Armstrong. “If you choose to contest the consequence recommended by USADA,” read the June 12 official charging letter from USADA, “you will have the right to request a hearing. If a hearing is held in the regular course, you should anticipate a hearing date before November, 2012.”
Assuming we reach this likely end-of-year milestone, USADA will be obliged to turn their evidence over for Armstrong and his lawyers to review. The case then goes to a hearing before a three-person arbitration panel where both sides can present evidence and cross-examine witnesses. It is the defendant’s decision – i.e., Armstrong’s – to elect to have an open hearing or keep it closed to the public. To prove its case, USADA would have to convince at least two arbitrators that the allegations are true. Any appeals of the arbitrators’ decision would be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Armstrong’s lawyer Robert Luskin responded to the June 29 charges the same day, saying USADA’s decision to charge Armstrong was “wrong” and “baseless”. “In its zeal to punish Lance, USADA has sacrificed the very principles of fair play that it was created to safeguard. It has compiled a disgraceful record of arrogance, secrecy, disregard for its own protocols, shabby science, and contempt for due process (…) There is not one shred of credible evidence to support USADA’s charges,” Luskin said in a statement.
The following day, Armstrong sent out this tweet: “I refuse to be distracted by @usantidoping’s antics. It’s 2012, I’m gonna continue to lead @LIVESTRONG, raise my five kids, and stay fit!”
On July 5, a week into the Tour de France, Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf dropped a front-page bombshell, reporting that former Armstrong teammates Hincapie, Leipheimer, Zabriskie and Vande Velde, as well as Garmin-Sharp CEO Joanthan Vaughters, will testify against him. De Telegraaf also said they have been given six-month bans that begin in late September for confessing to dope, their sentences suspended so that they could ride the Tour. The same day, Vaughters categorically denied any factual basis to the report, and USADA CEO Travis Tygart told the New York Times no individual cyclists had yet been punished in connection with the Armstrong case.
“So let me get this straight… come in and tell them exactly what they wanted to hear and you get complete immunity AND anonymity? I never got that offer,” wrote Armstrong in an email to the Associated Press. “This isn’t about Tygart wanting to clean up cycling — rather it’s just a plain ol’ selective prosecution that reeks of vendetta.”
Armstrong’s lawyers then attempted to file a lawsuit seeking an injunction against USADA on July 9. They claimed the agency violated their client’s constitutional rights, saying USADA does not have the jurisdiction to bring the charges and that it may have violated federal law in its investigation. They called USADA’s hearing procedure a ‘kangaroo court’ in that Armstrong would not be able to launch a proper defence against the charges, and would therefore face irreversible harm if USADA proceeds. “Defendants have presented Mr Armstrong with an impossible and unlawful choice: either accept a lifetime ban and the loss of his competitive achievements, or endure a rigged process where he would be certain to lose and suffer the same outcome,” the filing said.
Little more than a few hours had passed before a US federal judge struck down the suit, saying the 80-page filing smacked of a public relations move and was filled with allegations that “were totally irrelevant to Armstrong’s claims”. “This court is not inclined to indulge Armstrong’s desire for publicity, self-aggrandisement, or vilification of defendants, by sifting through eighty mostly unnecessary pages in search of a few kernels of factual material relevant to the claims,” US District Judge Sam Sparks wrote in his three-page ruling.
A revised complaint was swiftly filed the next day, 55 pages shorter than the original. Several hours beforehand USADA issued lifetime bans to three former US Postal Service staff members, namely Luis Garcia del Moral, Michele Ferrari and Jose ‘Pepe’ Marti (Johan Bruyneel has already decided to be heard by an arbitration panel). Later that week, USADA gave Armstrong a 30-day extension (till August 13) by which to answer the charges levelled against him; a smart move that undercuts the Texan’s lack of due process argument. “USADA believes this lawsuit, like previous lawsuits aimed at concealing the truth, is without merit,” Tygart said in a statement.
Expect Armstrong to challenge USADA’s claims, deny all allegations as is his wont and has always done, and a third – and final – arbitration phase to ensue before the CAS in Switzerland, the sporting world’s highest authority. With none of the gathered evidence on the public record as yet, what weight the allegations carry is known only to those involved or accused.
“Any fair consideration of these allegations has and will continue to vindicate me,” Armstrong said.
It ain’t over yet; not by any means. The dénouement we all want in order for the sport to move onwards and upwards is still some way off. Bit-by-bit, though, it appears we are edging closer to discovering the truth – and reaching a conclusion.
Life and Times of Lance
1971 Born Lance Edward Gunderson 18 September 1971 in Plano, Texas
1987-88 Number-one ranked under-19 triathlete in US
1991 Wins US amateur cycling championship
1992 Turns professional with Motorola after finishing 14th at 1992 Olympic Games
1993 Wins world road championship aged 21, one month after riding first Tour de France (abandoning after 12 stages and one stage win)
1996 First American to win La Flèche Wallonne, ranked number-one rider in the world. Diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer in October; given 40% chance of survival by his doctor
1998 Cancer in remission, starts serious training in January. Finishes fourth in Vuelta a España
1999 Wins Tour de France for first time, beating Alex Zülle by 7 minutes 37 seconds
2004 Publication of ‘L. A. Confidentiel – Les secrets de Lance Armstrong’, where Armstrong is accused of doping to win 1999 Tour
2005 Retires after winning Tour de France for seventh consecutive time. On August 23, French sports newspaper L’Équipe delivers front-page story under headline ‘le mensonge Armstrong’ (‘The Armstrong Lie’), alleging six urine samples taken from the cyclist from 1999 Tour, frozen and stored since, had tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO), conducted as part of a research project into EPO testing methods
2006 In June, French newspaper Le Monde reports claims by Betsy and Frankie Andreu during a court deposition that Armstrong had admitted using performance-enhancing drugs to his physician
2008 Announces comeback on September 9
2009 Returns to cycling in January 2009 at Tour Down Under, finishes Tour de France third overall
2010 Finishes Tour de France in 23rd place. Former teammate Floyd Landis accuses Armstrong of doping in 2002 and 2003, also claiming US Postal team director Johan Bruyneel bribed former UCI president Hein Verbruggen to cover up positive Armstrong test in 2002.
2011 Retires from competitive cycling for good on February 16. Former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton tells CBS News 60 Minutes program that he and Armstrong had together taken EPO before and during the 1999, 2000, and 2001 Tours de France.
2012 On February 2, US federal prosecutors drop 21-month criminal investigation with no charges; USADA asks for evidence. In a letter dated June 12, USADA officially charge Armstrong with consumption, possession, and trafficking performance-enhancing drugs. Should charges be contested, trial expected before November. Suspended from competing in triathlon on June 13.