Lance Armstrong was cycling's most successful Tour de France champion. And his greatest victory was hiding his offences, says David Walsh.
June 2004 seemed a seminal month in the story. Micro-film of LA Confidentiel, les secrets de Lance Armstrong, a book I had written with fellow journalist Pierre Ballester, had been taken to a secret printing house in the French provinces and from there to a secret warehouse from where it would be distributed throughout France.
The secrecy was because of the publisher's fear that an injunction sought by Armstrong could lead to the book not reaching the public.
Ballester decided not to go to the Tour de France, which would start a week later. He didn't feel the sport and the race were worth it any more. On the Friday before the start I walked into the press centre at Liege in Belgium and noticed the US Postal team director, Johan Bruyneel, chatting with journalist friends of his. He saw me arrive and from a distance of perhaps 30 metres, he began to leeringly shout: "Good job, Mr Walsh, good job, you've done a good job." His anger wasn't disguised.
He was there because Armstrong was due to give a press conference. For late arrivals, it was standing room only. I sat in the second row, not far from the stage where Armstrong sat. We knew each other by then; friendly during a 1993 interview when he was a 21-year-old riding his first Tour de France, but now at odds.
Our second interview had taken place at a hotel in southwest France in April 2001, when it became clear to him I didn't believe his victories were honestly achieved. That was our last one-to-one interview.
Early in the Liege press conference, he was asked about LA Confidentiel.
"I'll say one thing about the book, especially since the esteemed author is here. In my view, I think extraordinary accusations must be followed up with extraordinary proof. And Mr Walsh and Mr Ballester worked for years and they have not come up extraordinary proof."
The soundbite pleased many of those in the room. They preferred to write of an exciting Tour rather than delve into the murkiness of drugs, and this was a good enough quote to dismiss the allegations of doping. The mood of the time was reflected in a rare expression of gratitude from Armstrong to his friends in the media.
"I have received many, many calls from journalists in this room who've read the book, people who've read the book and said to me, 'OK, what's the big deal? There is nothing there'. And I appreciate the support."
That Armstrong was the puppeteer with the ability to make journalists dance to his tune became obvious an hour or so later. That year I was to travel on the race with three journalists; an English cycling writer, John Wilcockson, an American, Andy Hood, and an Australian, Rupert Guinness.
Wilcockson and I had travelled on the 1984 Tour, 20 years before and for several Tours after that. Guinness and I were friends and regular running partners on the Tour.
An hour after the press conference one of them sought me out and said they were sorry but they couldn't take me in their car because Armstrong would find out and then not co-operate with them. They needed Armstrong. Guinness would later apologise for what he felt had been a bad judgment call.
It was a long weekend in Liege, taxis everywhere until reporters from the French newspaper Le Monde offered a place in their car. There wasn't an English-speaking journalist who could have been asked with any confidence.
At this time the difficulty in discovering the truth on Lance Armstrong wasn't just timid journalism but the challenge of substantiating wholly credible allegations. Especially against a sportsman who was ready to sue those who raised questions about his doping.
What we knew in 2004 was that Armstrong was working with a doctor, Michele Ferrari, who was under investigation for suspected doping. It didn't prove anything but it wasn't what an anti-doping rider would ever do.
There was also extensive testimony from Emma O'Reilly, Armstrong's physical therapist through the 1999 and 2000 seasons. She claimed to have been present when Armstrong and two officials from the US Postal team concocted a story that allowed the rider to escape punishment after a doping violation at the 1999 Tour.
O'Reilly also insisted she had been asked by Armstrong to dump his used syringes and had done so. On another occasion she said she was required by the team to travel to Spain to pick up drugs she would take back to Nice in France and hand over to Armstrong.
Stephen Swart, a former team-mate of Armstrong's at the Motorola team in 1994 and 1995, told of how the young team leader had encouraged use of the blood booster erythropoietin within the team. Betsy Andreu, wife of Armstrong's one-time team- mate and close friend Frankie, told how she and her husband had heard Armstrong admit to doctors he used performance enhancing drugs before the onset of his cancer in 1996.
Their stories were told in LA Confidentiel and when The Sunday Times reported this, Armstrong sued.
He also sued the book's French publishers and L'Express magazine, which had serialised it.
Fearful of Armstrong's legal might, few in Britain were prepared to challenge him. Though prepared at first to repeat every accusation she had made in LA Confidentiel, Emma O'Reilly, who was by then living in Liverpool, realised nobody was interested in hearing her story. "When the book came out, Armstrong called me a prostitute and an alcoholic and would repeat the accusation about being a prostitute under privilege in a legal tribunal a couple of years later."
As Armstrong's supremacy became more established, another development was noticeable: some of the brighter, more inquisitive journalists stopped travelling to the Tour de France and covering the sport. Ballester walked away, so, too, did Benoit Hopquin of Le Monde, who had revealed Armstrong's positive test for a corticosteroid during the first Tour victory in 1999, a breach that was subsequently covered up by producing a post-dated medical prescription.
Jean-Michel Rouet was a lead writer for L'Equipe on that 1999 Tour who did not believe Armstrong was clean and reflected that viewpoint in his columns. At the beginning of the final week, he was spoken to by the director of the Tour de France at the time, Jean-Marie Leblanc, and emphatically told he was being too negative. L'Equipe and the Tour de France were both owned by the Amaury Group. Rouet, too, would stop coming to the race.
Armstrong's friendship with Hein Verbruggen, the man who was president of the UCI, the governing body of world cycling, deepened the sense that the American was untouchable, a feeling not lessened by the news that Armstrong had made two sizeable donations to the UCI to help the organisation in its anti-doping efforts. Asked about the amounts he had paid, in what form the payments had been made, the champion said he couldn't recall.
After his seventh consecutive victory in 2005, Armstrong retired. The very next winner of the race, Floyd Landis, was declared positive two days after his victory and subsequently stripped of his title. As would be the Spaniard Alberto Contador after his 2009 win. But Armstrong left the sport almost unscathed in 2005 and, if he hadn't returned to professional cycling three years later, it is conceivable he would have escaped punishment.
When he made his comeback at the start of 2009, the landscape had changed. The United States Anti- Doping Agency (USADA) had successfully prosecuted a small-time rider, Kayle Leogrande, for "a non- analytical positive". In other words, they banned him on evidence that he had doped rather than on a conclusive positive test. In 2008, Leogrande received a two- year ban and once he had lost his livelihood, he had to leave his apartment in Calabasas, California.
After his departure, his landlord saw what he guessed were performance enhancing drugs in the fridge and recalled reading of Leogrande's two-year ban imposed by the USADA. The landlord called the agency and asked what he should do with the drugs and was told to leave them where they were. The agency did not have the right to enter that apartment and take away evidence of Leogrande's involvement in doping so it asked the Food and Drug Administration to get involved.
That was in 2008 and Leogrande's decision not to remove his EPO from that fridge brought the FDA special agent Jeff Novitzky into the drug poisoned world of professional cycling. It started with Leogrande and the small team who had employed him, Rock Racing, but the investigation soon switched to the biggest players in world cycling, Lance Armstrong and his teams. Novitzky was taken aback by the depth and organised nature of the corruption.
The federal case into Armstrong and the US Postal team was dropped without explanation in February this year, a decision that caught Novitzky and his team by surprise. They believed they had a very strong case against Armstrong and his associates.
The reprieve for Armstrong was temporary because Travis Tygart, the USADA's chief executive, had been asked by some cyclists to sit in while they were interviewed by federal agents and he knew what they had revealed. Riders then repeated their evidence to the USADA and gave the agency the information to process the case against Armstrong and five named associates in cycling.
Three of the six accused, Armstrong and two of his former team doctors, Michele Ferrari and Luis del Moral, opted not to contest the charges brought against them. The other three, former team director Bruyneel, former team doctor Pedro Celaya and former soigneur Jose "Pepi" Marti, have indicated a desire to have their cases heard before an independent panel. But after Armstrong's decision not to fight, they may follow suit.
Whether there will be a sting in the tail of the Armstrong story depends upon the UCI. It has asked to see the USADA's full explanation for the decision to strip the seven-time Tour champion of his titles. The UCI has the right to have the case reviewed by the International Court of Arbitration for Sport and says it will study the USADA report before deciding. The report will be delivered within two weeks.
Already, the president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, John Fahey, has called Armstrong "a drug cheat".
Tygart is convinced the USADA's actions will be vindicated by other organisations. "We've seen all the evidence," he said, "and we know the truth. I think Mr Armstrong also knows the truth and instead of a fact-by- fact, piece-by-piece examination happening in an open court, he decided his better move was not to contest and hold on to some baseless soundbites about witch hunts and vendettas."
Over the recent days Emma O'Reilly has watched the breaking story of Armstrong's fall from grace and noted with some amusement the condemnation of so many. "I've listened to them and laughed, thinking to myself, 'Where were you in 2004 or 2005? What were you saying then? It's sure not what you're saying now'."
David Walsh is the chief sports writer of The Sunday Times, London.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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