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Lance Armstrong was once one of the most powerful brands in sports and philanthropy. His personal victories over cancer and his triumphs on the bicycle inspired people around the world. But a sprawling investigation into whether he cheated recently reached a breaking point, as former teammates and associates turned over evidence that led to Armstrong being stripped of his titles. We examine the scope and impact of Armstrong’s downfall.
- Juliet Macur Reporter, The New York Times
- Liz Clarke Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the history of future and classic cocktails and what they say about those who drink them. But first, rewriting the history of one of the most inspirational stories in all of sports, from a heroes quest to a Greek tragedy. For the past two decades, Lance Armstrong, has served as a symbol of strength, perseverance and courage.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINot just for cycling fans, but for millions of people around the world who had little interest in that sport. He was the man who famously came back from a devastating battle with cancer only to dominate his sport like none had done before him. But all of that came crashing down recently when evidence started piling up that Armstrong cheated his way to his victories on the bike by spearheading what's been called, the most sophisticated doping operation cycling has ever seen.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDuring the past month, he's been banned from the sport for life and stripped of his seven Tour De France titles and the symbol that provided strength for so many people facing down their own health crisis has always been severely damaged. Joining us to explore how Armstrong's story began to unravel and to measure the fallout of his undoing is Liz Clarke, sports reporter for The Washington Post. Liz, so good to meet you. Thank you for joining us.
MS. LIZ CLARKESuch a pleasure, Kojo, thank you.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from New York is Juliet Macur, she's a reporter for The New York Times. Juliet Macur, thank you for joining us.
MS. JULIET MACURYou're welcome, I'm happy to do it.
NNAMDILiz, the President of the International Cycling Union didn't just say, this week, that Lance Armstrong, one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, deserved to be banned from his sport. He said that Armstrong deserves to be forgotten. Why are things unraveling so fast for Lance Armstrong, right now?
CLARKEAh, some would probably say, it's overdue.
NNAMDIBeen a long time coming.
CLARKEA long time coming. But certainly the events since October 10th when the U.S. Anti-doping Agency released its voluminous report with more than a 1,000 pages of testimony and documents, detailing the extent of his doping and his encouraging teammates to dope, if not demanding that they dope. His whole world has come apart as we know, stripped of the titles, banned for life, truly a pariah now. But there have been, of course, rumors of these sort of misdeeds for quite some time. And he had been masterful, not only in denying them and eluding or evading drug tests that would've proved otherwise.
CLARKEBut presenting almost like a Mother Theresa like image for his good works, which indeed seem to have been very sincerely motivated and very effective and very good but within sports, the report talks a lot about this Code of Omerta, of silence. So it took one athlete turning and a lot of persuasion and probably behind the scenes threats to convince a whole series of teammates, 11 of them, of the merits of coming forward and confessing their part along with confessing Armstrong's role.
NNAMDIJuliet, Armstrong managed to keep suspicions that he was cheating at bay for years. What specifically did the U.S. Anti-doping Agency uncover in the reported release last week that was damning and how did it manage to turn the corner in its investigation?
MACURI think the -- well, they had a 202 page report detailing all their evidence. And I think among all those details, the most powerful evidence was -- were the 11 teammates who came forward to talk about their own doping and to talk about Lance's role as really the ring leader of this team wide doping scheme on the U.S. Postal Service team and then the subsequent Discovery Channel team. There was some evidence that his blood tests have indicated that he had used doping products or blood doped over the years.
MACURBut, really, even if they didn't have that information, having almost a dozen of your former teammates, some of them at one point were really close friends with Lance, confidants of lance, for them to come forward outside of the federal investigation, so they didn't get a subpoena for this and they weren't threatened with any criminal action against them for giving this information. They came forward voluntarily because of their distaste for doping over the years.
MACURThe first guy who came forward, came forward because he felt like it was a form of abuse, that he was pressured by Lance Armstrong's team manager to use drugs. And the rest of the guys followed. So more powerful evidence than your friends turning on you.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number here if you'd like to join this conversation. Are you someone who found inspiration in Lance Armstrong's story as a cancer survivor and a former champion cyclist? What do you see in him now, that so much evidence suggests that he cheated to win those titles, 800-433-8850? You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Juliet, cycling's President said he was particularly sickened by the testimony from former Armstrong teammate, David Zabriskie. Why was his coming forth so significant?
MACURDavid Zabriskie is a five time national time trial champion, kind of a quirky guy, very witty and pretty intelligent guy in cycling. And for years he hadn't pulled his story, like all these other cyclists but he was the first guy to come forward after Floyd Landis, who was the very initial guy to come forward. He's the guy who won the 2006 Tour De France for -- and then had that title stripped for doping. And then for years, said he never doped and that it was a mistake and wrote a book about it and got donations to help his legal fund. And then finally came out in 2010 and said, yes, I doped and Lance Armstrong did too.
MACURThe problem with Floyd Landis was his -- he had massive credibility problems based on the fact that he lied to the public for so many years and took money for it also to help his legal fund. So this guy, Dave Zabriskie, coming forward was huge because he had really no reason to come forward. It wasn't -- he wasn't pressured by the feds because they had already closed their federal investigation into Armstrong. He came forward because he felt forced to dope, he felt like there was, like I said, a form of abuse because he -- his father actually was a drug user, an alcoholic and a drug dealer. And Dave started cycling to get away from all that as a kid.
MACURAnd then when he went to Europe, his father died in 2000 and then he signed with the U.S. Postal Service Team and then shortly thereafter he felt pressured to use EPO and then was crushed by it because he couldn't go after his dream and had to use drugs. And he was just going to be like his father which he promised himself he would never do. And he turned the corner, I guess, started using drugs and it has haunted him every since. He actually -- the day after -- the week after he used EPO in Europe, he was forced to use EPO, he came back to the states after the season and was hit by a car.
MACURAnd it really -- it severely broke his leg and now he has some screws in his legs. And he thought it was God's retribution for him using drugs when he fine -- when he said he would never be like his father. And every day when he feels those screws in his legs, when he rides his bike, he can feel that, the weakness in the leg a little bit, he thinks about it and it bugged him for that long. It was that much of a burden that he was the first guy to step forward to reveal the doping. And that was first, well really the second domino to fall but the major reason why other teammates came forward.
NNAMDIJuliet Macur is a reporter for The New York Times. She joins us by phone from New York. Joining us in our studio in Washington is Liz Clarke, sports reporter for The Washington Post. You too can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Liz Clarke, was it a combination, both of our, I guess, belief in Lance Armstrong on the one hand and the lack of credibility early on of someone like Floyd Landis that caused so many people, for so long including many of his teammates, not to come forward with this information about Lance Armstrong? Was his aura, in fact, that great?
CLARKEI think, for the average American sports fan, maybe even just the average American, his aura was incredibly powerful. Just the basics of his story. You didn't have to be a cycling freak, you know, the basics of his story, this man had cancer, a very advanced form and he came back to win the most grueling event in the world, seven times, a European specialty event and he's from Texas. And then he immediately upon being cured of cancer or surviving that first year, formed this foundation to do good works.
CLARKESo he really represented hope, he represented optimism and triumph in the most unlikely package. It's a very seductive narrative and one I think everyone -- many Americans want to believe. Now, I feel like cycling fans in Europe were a little more skeptical. It didn't quite make as much sense. There wasn't as much the ability to be cast under a spell. And I am not sure his aura, and I love Juliet's perspective, but I'm not sure his aura was that powerful over his teammates. It seems, in reading the report, that his vengefulness was the real weapon he used.
NNAMDIThey were scared of him.
CLARKEYes. He is documented as having threatened not only teammates but threatening the wives of teammates. He was litigious, you know, he sued. He wasn't just an athlete who cheated and denied it. I mean, he went after people who questioned him with vengefulness, with venom and it's very hard to reconcile. I think that was what effectively kept the silence or enforced the silence around him immediately.
NNAMDIJuliet Macur, what exactly was the science behind the kind of cheating that Armstrong's teammates say he and the rest of the team were engaging in? And what kind of competitive advantage does the drug like EPO give a rider like Lance Armstrong anyway?
MACURThey had a huge -- well, they had a huge competitive advantage, not because of the EPO that they were using because in fact history has shown that most of the -- many of the top riders were using EPO at that time in the late '90s when there was no test for it. They had an advantage because of the sophisticate -- and of their program, at that time, teams did not have doctors who were administrating these drug regiments that were really specific.
MACURAlmost -- they were in the BALCO steroids case in San Francisco with Barry Bonds where they had calendars and little notes on when to take the EPO, when to take the testosterone, when you should use the blood transfusion, when you should put the blood transfusion back in so you get those extra blood cells and extra endurance level. They were also one of the first teams to start using blood transfusions again. That was pretty popular before EPO became popular.
MACURAnd then EPO was easier to use. But once test was implemented for that, they started using these blood transfusions again. And that provides a huge advantage, I'm not sure what percentage it is but, you know, especially in a race for the Tour De France, if you're riding for many, many hours a day and then riding through the Alps and you have a rest day, they would re-infuse this blood that they had taken out earlier and it would give them this freshness of the legs and, you know, and more energy to ride a mountain the next day.
MACURAnd, you know, on many days in the Alps when he was winning, Lance looked like he was on a, like, riding in the park, talking on his cell phone or, you know, all these other guys looked like they were about to pass out and die and he, you know, didn't even look tired. And now we know that's why. And although a lot of people were taking drugs at that time, the team was -- is now known to have one of the more sophisticated programs in the history of sports -- sophisticated doping programs where doctors and team trainers and all these people were involved. It was a business.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. When we come back we'll continue this conversation about the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong. And if the lines are busy you can also go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there, or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. You can send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation with Liz Clarke, sports reporter for the Washington Post and Juliet Macur, reporter for the New York Times, about the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Liz, Armstrong holds fast to the fact that he never failed a drug test. It's my understanding that the USADA report doesn't have any proof of positive drug tests. With that in mind, how would he have managed to pass testing during the period that he was cheating?
CLARKESure. This is a great question and I think this is where a lot of people are puzzled. At the outset there's a major dispute between Lance's version and testing officials of how many tests he actually underwent. I believe he says, I've been tested 500 times, more than any other athlete, never been found guilty. They say the number -- the USADA people say the number is far fewer for one.
CLARKEThe report also documents that he and his team had a way of getting advanced warning of when certain drugs were going to be tested for. He also had a habit of kind of disappearing or being vague about his whereabouts when testing was being done. And there's a good bit of evidence that the International Cycling Federation, which is in that very awkward position of both promoting the sport and policing the sport, that they did not really, to be honest, pursue rooting out cheaters, specifically the meal ticket cheater, Lance Armstrong, with sufficient vigor and good faith. And that's a very hot button issue. I think it's already been litigated.
CLARKESo it is plausible to me that he never tested positive. And there are a few little cases where there were signs something was abnormal, but it did not reach the threshold of a flat out positive.
NNAMDIJuliet, cycling's president defended Armstrong for a very long time. To what degree do you think that cycling was invested in keeping Lance Armstrong's hand clean in protecting him until this week? It's not like the sport was generating the same kind of worldwide attention before he came onto the scene.
MACURWell, Lance Armstrong is the reason why we're talking about cycling right now.
MACURI mean, frankly if it wasn't for Lance Armstrong nobody would really be talking about the Tour de France, not many people in the U.S. for the past decade. I mean, when he came on the scene and had such a great story of coming back from cancer and winning those tours, people started riding their bikes more in this country. People started tuning into a sport that was really just kind of a strange European sport that people here really never paid much attention to.
MACURI don't know how much -- I don't know anything about the -- you know, the extent to which the cycling union went to -- has supported Lance Armstrong in terms of hiding dope -- doping positive. I mean, there have been accusations about that and there'll be more investigations on that. But, like Liz says, he was their meal ticket. He made them popular, you know, not just in Europe. I mean, Europeans love cycling. It's one of their sports like American football is here and baseball. It's a sport that everybody, you know, is interested in.
MACURBut here in this country it was pretty much nonexistent until lance came around, and the cycling union knew that. I mean, he was one of their stars. So they defended him really to the last moment until this huge -- all these documents came down from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. And then they took a couple weeks to look at them, even though there was a lot of damning evidence.
MACURAnd then quite surprisingly just a few days ago said that -- you know, that he deserves to be forgotten, which is a complete turnaround from just a couple weeks ago when they were complaining that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency didn't have jurisdiction over the case. You know, they were trying to wrestle the case out of their hands to be able to look at the evidence and decide what to do with it or give it to a supposed independent body to look at. You know, it's a huge turnaround. I mean, I think they had their backs pretty much against the wall looking at all this evidence and they couldn't stand next to their star anymore. It was just over.
NNAMDIHere is Rene in Raleigh, N.C. Rene, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RENEWell, I was just going to point out to, like, just, you know, not that I support anything that he did, but I do feel like, you know, there's some things that we do need to -- some definite. I mean, he did have cancer. He did survive it. And the foundation that he started has done wonderful things for a lot of people. And I think that the two have to be separated. Yes, maybe the extent of the cover-up might be indicative of maybe his personality and things like that. But I think this -- the work that his foundation has done has been wonderful for people.
RENEAnd, yes, he used his notoriety from his wins to, you know, help the foundation to grow but it's helped a lot of people. And he just used a platform that he had available to him. So I just -- I would -- you know, I just think the two issues should remain separate because he is a survivor and he did do a lot of good for a lot of people.
NNAMDIYou know, Liz Clarke, at his peak, Armstrong commended one of the strongest brands in the history of professional sports, a brand he put to work both commercially for companies like Nike, Oakley, for Michelob Ultra Beer and a brand that that nonprofit Livestrong used to raise millions of dollars for cancer research. All of the sponsors have parted ways with him. He stepped down from the head of the Livestrong Foundation. But to what extent is it possible to separate the two issues, if in fact the one provided money for the other?
CLARKEYou know, I mean, I think it is possible and I think it is particularly possible in our country where I've kind of been amazed as I have sort of looked for outrage. Not that -- actually, not that I'm looking for outrage but as I've tried to get a sense of how sports fans, how people are reacting to this -- these revelations about Lance Armstrong, I'm not finding outrage. I'm finding a pretty high tolerance for doping at some level. I think in our culture sports fans in a lot of ways just view this as look, the sport was dirty. What he was doing made it a level playing field. And then he still kicked everybody's rear ends, you know. He is a champion. He just was playing the game that you had to play.
CLARKESo I think there are a lot of Americans who may not endorse what he did, may not feel good about it but they're very able to separate that. And, as Rene said, really appreciate, admire and conceivably still give, you know, financially to Livestrong. It is the corporate money that sees him as a toxic asset now. I mean -- and that's how corporations operate. You know, you help us or you don't. And at the moment you don't you're cut loose.
CLARKEBut I think the Livestrong brand may well continue and I think Americans -- they love redemption stories. Michael Vick is back among us, you know. I don't -- he won't have a chance -- Lance won't have a chance to redeem himself competitively. He is done but I think he has made an enduring mark as a Samaritan, as a person who has used his platform, as Rene says, to help others, which is a wonderful thing.
NNAMDIRene, thank you very much for your call. Juliet Macur, do you agree we have not seen the last chapter so to speak of the Lance Armstrong story?
MACURYeah, it's unfolding. Everyone's waiting to see what's going to happen to Lance, what his next move is. But, you know, I have written a lot about this. I've got a lot of emails from people who aren’t supporting him anymore. I mean, there are those emails that say that it didn't matter. It was a level playing field, which of course is not the case because the more talented athletes would've been helped less by doping than other athletes who might not have been as talented. So that's not true.
MACURBut I think a lot of people look to him as inspiration and maybe didn't care that he doped. But I think that they do care now that he is lying for so long. And not only it's the lies, I think -- this is just based on people who have emailed me and called me about it -- it's not just the lies. I think it's just the extent of the deception and the intimidation for -- of his teammates and the fact that he wielded his power so heavily that his teammates were afraid of him. And everybody in the sport was afraid of him.
MACURThis is why people did not come out until just a couple months ago where they decided to come out as a group after Floyd Landis, you know, was the first (word?) to fall. They felt like it was the right time because there were so many of them basically because he was a bully and he was scaring everybody into keeping quiet. The people that did come out in the past like his -- one of his teammates Frankie Andreu had told us in 2006 that he had used EPO in the -- right up until the 1999 tour.
MACURLance came out right away with all these aggressive statements and basically called for his job and called him to repay all the money that he made in cycling. And he did lose his job because of it and he's been -- he was blackballed from the sport for many years. So Lance Armstrong has a history of crushing the people who have spoken out against him. So I don't think a lot of the people who saw him as inspiration as a cancer survivor really appreciated that. I think that there's a distaste among those -- that group of people.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're almost out of time, but Liz, you cover a lot of Olympic sports. What do you think cycling is going to suffer from this in terms of damage? Is it suffering right now? Do you think cycling can recover?
CLARKEI think cycling certainly can recover but to do so it has to go far beyond targeting individual cyclists, rooting them out and driving them out of the sport and proclaiming that it's clean and all is well. There's a lot of evidence that this has been a long and systemic pattern of cheating that has been if not condoned, kind of tolerated or, you know, put to the side.
CLARKESo I guess what I'm trying to say is the process of team doctors getting fired and popping up in another country with another job or team directors, you know, being recycled or perhaps even countries that maybe turn a blind eye, there are many layers of the cycling world that need to kind of have a catharsis -- or a coming forward and accounting confessional here. And so there's a lot of work to be done I think to build the trust but it's possible.
NNAMDILiz Clarke, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDILiz Clarke is a sports reporter for the Washington Post. Juliet Macur, thank you for joining us.
MACURThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJuliet Macur is a reporter for the New York Times. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, you may need something to bolster you after this kind of conversation. The history and future of classic cocktails and what they say about those who drink them. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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