The long uphill chase for the truth
CYCLING/LANCE ARMSTRONG DOPING SCANDAL:FLOYD LANDIS, the cyclist who had denied doping for years despite being stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for failing a drug test, went to a lunch meeting in April 2010 with the director of the Tour of California cycling race.
As they sat down at a restaurant in Los Angeles, Landis placed a tape recorder between them and pressed record. Landis finally wanted to tell the truth: He had doped through most of his professional career. He was recording his confessions so he would have proof that he had blown the whistle on the sport.
“How do you expect people to believe you when you lied for so long?” Andrew Messick, the race director, asked Landis. “Have you told your mother? Have you told Travis Tygart?” Landis, raised as a Mennonite, said he had not yet told his mother. Nor had he told Tygart, the chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, with whom he had clashed for more than two years as Landis publicly fought his doping case. But, Landis said, it was time.
“Lance Armstrong never came up,” Messick said in an interview last week. “But he did make a comment on the mafia. He said, ‘When you’re in the mafia and you get caught and go to jail, you keep your mouth shut, and the organisation takes care of your family. In cycling, you’re expected to keep your mouth shut when you test positive, but you become an outcast. Everyone just turns their back on you.”
Anti-doping officials had pursued Armstrong for years, often quixotic efforts that died at the wall of silence his loyal team-mates built around him as the sport’s global king. Armstrong managed to keep the dark side of his success quiet, investigators and cyclists said, by using guile and arm-twisting tactics that put fear in those who might cross him. But the lunch conversation between Landis and Messick would eventually be seen as the first significant crack in Armstrong’s gilded foundation, a critical turning point in anti-doping officials’ quest to penetrate the code of secrecy that endured in cycling.
It set in motion a series of events that led to the revelation that Lance Armstrong and his US Postal Service team were engaged in what anti-doping officials called the most sophisticated doping program in history – one covered up by cyclists who banded together to protect themselves, one another and the ugly, deceitful underbelly of the sport.
Armstrong, who vehemently denies ever doping, did not fight the charges the anti-doping agency brought against him. Last week, in the wake of anti-doping officials’ making public their evidence in the case, Armstrong stepped down as chairman of his cancer foundation and lost nearly all his endorsements.
Today, cycling’s world governing body is expected to announce whether it will appeal the anti-doping agency’s ruling. If the group does not appeal, Tour de France organisers will officially strip Armstrong of his Tour titles.
Interviews with more than a dozen riders, their wives, lawyers, anti-doping officials and team executives revealed that Armstrong’s undoing was the culmination of an inquiry that played out over more than two years – but that dramatically turned over the course of several weeks this summer.
At that point, anti-doping officials hardly had an airtight case. Tygart was hurriedly approaching cyclists from Armstrong’s United States Postal Service teams. “Look, the system of doping in the sport is coming down, and all the riders, including Lance Armstrong, are going to be given an opportunity to get on the lifeboat,” he told them. “Are you on it?” Rider after rider asked, “Am I going to be the only one?” It would take months for them to find out.
The anti-doping agency knew its case against Armstrong had the potential to be a blockbuster. Landis’ doping confession and claim that Armstrong and other Postal Service riders were involved in team-organised doping became public in May 2010. A federal investigation into Armstrong relating to doping-related crimes, including fraud and drug trafficking, ensued.