By Eben Novy-Williams
Lance Armstrong said he cheated by using drugs through a record run of titles in cycling’s biggest race and probably forced other athletes to follow his lead.
“It was this mythic perfect story, and it wasn’t true,” Armstrong said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey about the difference between his public image as a cancer survivor who became the world’s best cyclist and the truth behind his success.
In his first televised interview since being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, Armstrong said he never felt as though he was cheating, didn’t think he could have accomplished what he did without doping and acknowledged that he owed apologies to people he bullied and attacked during 13 years of emphatic denials.
“I viewed this as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times,” Armstrong said yesterday.
The 41-year-old American, whose survival from testicular cancer helped create the largest athlete-founded charity in the U.S., was banned from competing in Olympic-level sports for life in October after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency published a 1,000- page report that said it found proof he engaged in serial cheating though the use, administration and trafficking of testosterone, erythropoietin, or EPO, and blood transfusions.
The second part of the interview, taped this week at a hotel in Armstrong’s home town of Austin, Texas, will air tonight on the Oprah Winfrey Network and online. Topics will include the end of his relationship with the Livestrong charity and the day he was dropped by his biggest sponsors, which Armstrong calls “a $75 million day.”
“This is the start of a personal therapeutic journey for him,” Jane Jordan-Meier, a crisis manager who is founder and chief executive officer of the Media Skills Academy in Fairfield, California, said in a phone interview last night. “He has a long way to go to redemption — if he ever gets it.”
Armstrong last night described his doping regimen as “smart,” “professional” and “risk averse.” He said his “cocktail” was testosterone, EPO and blood transfusions and that, because doping was endemic in his generation, he never felt as though he was cheating or felt bad about taking the drugs.
“I viewed it as a level playing field,” Armstrong said.
He said he never feared being caught because there was little out-of-competition testing and he was “clean at the races.” It’s more difficult to dope now because riders are tested more often and each cyclist has to provide a “biological passport” that records their average blood measurements.
“Drug testing has changed, it has evolved,” Armstrong said. “Now the emphasis of the testing is out of competition.”
Armstrong said that, while he didn’t expect or require other riders to use banned substances, as former teammate Christian Vande Velde alleged in the USADA report, he understood that his use of banned substances may have made teammates feel pressure to do the same.
“I was the leader,” he said. “There was never a direct order or a directive that said you have to do this if you want to do the Tour.”
USADA, the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based overseer of U.S. drug rules, said in its October report that Armstrong’s career was “fueled start to finish by doping,” using evidence from 11 former teammates. Agency Chief Executive Travis Tygart said in an e-mailed statement following last night’s interview that Armstrong took a “small step” in the right direction.
“If he is sincere in his desire to correct his past mistakes, he will testify under oath about the full extent of his doping activities,” Tygart said.
Armstrong’s ban took effect when he opted not to fight the allegations in the USADA report.
After being banned, Armstrong severed ties with Livestrong. The largest athlete-founded charity has raised more than $470 million since 1997, according to its website.
“Even in the wake of our disappointment, we also express our gratitude to Lance as a survivor for the drive, devotion and spirit he brought to serving cancer patients and the entire cancer community,” Livestrong said in a statement.
Armstrong was diagnosed in 1996 with stage three testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain. He returned to the Tour de France in 1999, winning the first of seven consecutive titles, six with the U.S. Postal Service team, and the final with a team sponsored by the Discovery Channel.
The doping stopped after the last of his Tour victories in 2005, Armstrong said. Contrary to the USADA report, he said he didn’t cheat when he placed third in the Tour in 2009 or when he rode the race again in 2010. He raced with Astana in 2009 and Team RadioShack in 2010.
Since 2008, the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body known by its French acronym UCI, has used so- called blood passports to document changes in riders’ blood that may signal doping or the use of transfusions.
“It was disturbing to watch him describe a litany of offences including among others doping throughout his career, leading a team that doped, bullying, consistently lying to everyone and producing a backdated medical prescription to justify a test result,” UCI President Pat McQuaid said today in an e-mailed statement.
Armstrong is in talks to return a portion of the millions of taxpayer dollars received by the U.S. Postal Service team, whose contract specifically banned doping, according to CBS News. The network reported this week that the Justice Department rejected a $5 million offer from the cyclist that included his participation in a federal investigation.
Justice Department officials have recommended the U.S. government join a federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed by former teammate Floyd Landis in 2010, according to the New York Daily News. The lawsuit claims Armstrong and U.S. Postal team executives used taxpayer dollars to fund the squad’s doping and is seeking to recover the roughly $30 million that the Postal Service paid the team.
Under the False Claims Act, should they be found guilty, Armstrong and others could be forced to repay triple the amount they received, or more than $90 million.
Investment banker Thomas Weisel, chairman of Tailwind Sports, the holding company for the U.S. Postal Service team, told the New York Times that he was unaware of Armstrong’s doping. The 71-year-old founder of Montgomery Securities and Thomas Weisel Partners said it was not until the USADA report that he realized rumors of Armstrong’s cheating may be correct, according to the newspaper.
The whistle-blower lawsuit is not the only legal ramification Armstrong faces.
Along with his backers, he might face a $12 million lawsuit from Dallas-based SCA Promotions Inc. over Tour de France bonus payments it insured.
The Sunday Times is trying to recoup $1.5 million the U.K. newspaper paid Armstrong to settle a libel suit in 2006. In addition, the Australian state of South Australia is seeking damages or compensation from Armstrong for “several million dollars” of appearance fees from its Tour Down Under, ESPN reported this week, citing state Premier Jay Weatherill.
Geoffrey Rapp, a sports law professor at the University of Toledo College of Law, said Armstrong’s admission most likely means there are settlements in the works for some of his pending lawsuits.
“He understands the bottom line is he has to get ahead of the story and he was too late,” Rapp said.
Armstrong’s net worth was estimated at $125 million in August by Forbes Magazine, which said at the time that he earns more than $10 million per year in speaking and endorsement deals. Last year he took out a $1.85 million line of credit, secured by his home in Austin, which is valued at more than $3 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Following the USADA report, Armstrong was dropped by sponsors including Nike Inc. (NKE), Luxottica Group SpA’s (LUX) Oakley Inc., Anheuser-Busch InBev NV (ABI), Trek Bicycle Corp., and energy supplement makers FRS and Honey Stinger. In total the cyclist lost as much as $200 million in future earning potential, according to market analysts.
“There was nothing that happened in those 90 minutes that said that maybe he has a future as a product endorser or brand spokesman,” Jim Andrews, senior vice president of content strategy at IEG, a sponsorship consultant, said in a telephone interview.
Armstrong didn’t say anything that will affect the stock of companies once associated with him, Paul Swinand, an equity analyst who covers Nike for Morningstar Inc. in Chicago, said after the interview last night.
“I don’t think it’s going to move the needle for anyone one way or the other,” Swinand said in a telephone interview.
A former semiprofessional cyclist, Swinand said in an e- mail that he owns no Nike shares and rates the stock at three stars, or fairly valued. Nike shares yesterday fell 25 cents to $53.48.
Armstrong for years verbally attacked anyone who questioned the validity of his achievements because of a “win at all costs mentality.”
“It serves me well on the bike, it served me well during the disease, but the level that it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw,” he said. “That defiance, that attitude, that arrogance, you cannot deny it.”
Those attacked included Emma O’Reilly, a former masseuse with his team who told of doping and cover-up strategies, and Betsy Andreu, the wife of one-time teammate Frankie Andreu, who testified that she heard Armstrong acknowledge doping before his cancer diagnosis.
Armstrong said that O’Reilly’s claims were accurate and that he tried to reach out to her to apologize. He called her “one of those people that got run over.”
He said he spoke with Betsy Andreu recently on the phone for 40 minutes and apologized to her. He didn’t comment on whether her allegations were accurate, saying his attacks on O’Reilly and Andreu were a product of his competitive and bullying nature.
“I was just on the attack,” he said. “Territory being threatened, team being threatened, reputation being threatened, I’m going to attack.”
Rapp said Armstrong could be vulnerable to lawsuits from those that he bullied, including O’Reilly and Andreu.
“He’s probably going to start writing checks to people he accused of being liars,” Rapp said.
Armstrong said last night that he’d be willing to participate in any programs aimed at cleaning up cycling, for example, if USADA were to form a truth and reconciliation commission.
“If they have it, and I’m invited, I’ll be the first man in the door,” he said.
Armstrong has no chance of competing again in sports if he does not divulge every detail of his drug use, World Anti-Doping Agency Director General David Howman said this week.
Yesterday the International Olympic Committee stripped Armstrong of the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, and wrote to the cyclist asking for its return.
Armstrong said his admission and apologies are probably too late for many people, that he has no credibility and that he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to regain people’s trust.
“I deserve this,” he said. “It’s a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and to control every outcome and it’s inexcusable. And when I say there are people who will hear this and never forgive me, I understand that, I do.”