The Explainer: I’m shocked, shocked, I say
So, what do you think? I am guessing that USADA’s document dump today (Wednesday) must have caught your attention by now.
Do you have any thoughts on the evidence presented? Any surprises? Will it have any impact given that we’re only seeing one side of the whole case?
Do you have any thoughts on what the UCI might do?
Winners? Losers? Who are they?
Let’s start with the winners and losers. Aside from Armstrong, the list of losers is pretty extensive, starting with Johan Bruyneel, who was fired yesterday, Michele Ferrari, who may be facing additional criminal charges in Italian courts and the rest named in the original June 12, 2012 charging document: Dr. Pedro Celaya, Dr. Luis del Moral and Pepe Marti. When all is said and done, the sport will be rid of these guys. Good-frickin’-riddance, gentlemen. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.
To a lesser degree, there is that list of riders who that found themselves in the untenable position of continuing to lie – and risk lengthy suspensions or even criminal perjury charges – or to give up on that whole culture of omerta, the “code of silence” that has long governed the world of professional cycling. I applaud their decisions to “come clean,” but sure do wish it had been 10 years ago.
Also on that list of losers has to be the parade of “journalists” who – for reasons of sycophancy, a desire for profit or both – sang the praises of a man they knew to be a bully and, above all, a cheat. And, no, they can’t claim they didn’t know. The only way they didn’t see the obvious is that their seats on the gravy train were too damn comfortable and they didn’t want to stand up and take a look. They should be ashamed.
Sadly, there is a much larger group of other journo’s – myself included – who, while declining to heap praise on Armstrong, didn’t do nearly enough with the information that we had. We poked around the edges and only did stories when we knew we had our asses completely covered. Few of us took the big risks. Whether driven by fear of lawsuits or losing our jobs, we should, nonetheless, be embarrassed. I know I am.
The winners? That list is a helluva lot shorter. It includes – but is not limited to – Betsy and Frankie Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Dr. Prentice Steffan, Stephen Swart, Christophe Bassons, Greg LeMond, Filippo Simeoni, David Walsh, Pierre Ballester and Paul Kimmage. Each of those people has consistently stated positions that were often contrary to their own interests, risking career, financial security and reputations to pursue what they saw as the truth.
Wednesday’s revelations show they were right.
I’m shocked, shocked, I say
There have been some who said that Wednesday’s revelations were earth-shattering news. Some even declared they were “shocked.”
Look, the evidence was extensive (you can see that for yourselves), but was it surprising? Not so much.
While blowing off most of the work associated with my current “day job” on Wednesday, I had the feeling that I was reading the unabridged version of “L.A. Confidentiel,” which David Walsh and Pierre Ballester wrote eight years ago.
Walsh had his suspicions even longer than that. I had the privilege of meeting Walsh for the first time at the 1999 Tour. It wasn’t just a quick introduction, either. We spent the entire Tour together, as it was Walsh’s tradition to join up with the VeloNews crew, coordinate hotel accommodations and meals and the drive from each day’s village departé to the press room at the finish. I was the driver, riding shotgun was my former boss, John Wilcockson and crammed into the back seat were Walsh and Australian journalist – and world famous Hawaiian shirt aficionado – Rupert Guinness.
That meant hours in the car, often at slow speeds, so we could stay in range of race radio, and then more time in the press room as we all crafted our stories and then dinner and then often late nights at the hotel bar. Shallow and myopic as most sports writers are, our conversations pretty much revolved around a single subject. Yup, that would be cycling.
Do recall, that the 1999 Tour came on the heels of the previous year’s devastating “Festina Affair.” With teams arrested, ejected or simply packing up and leaving the Tour under cover of night, a lot of us pretty much expected that by 1999, the costs of doping far exceeded any benefit and that sport would be clean from here on out.
Certainly, that was the hope of 25-year-old Christophe Bassons, who had earned the reputation as a clean rider when teammates testified that he had been the only member of the 1998 Festina team who refused to dope. Now a member of Francaise des Jeux, Bassons saw the 1999 Tour as an opportunity for the entire peloton to speak out against doping.
The new hero of this “clean era” quickly emerged as cancer survivor Lance Armstrong scored an impressive win in the prologue at Le Puy du Fou.
Within days, though, news broke that none other than Armstrong had tested positive for corticosteroids. There hadn’t been a Therapeutic Use Exemption … but the UCI accepted a back-dated prescription for topical cream that Armstrong said was for the treatment of saddle sores. It was quickly called the “butt cream defense,” by skeptics in the press room. So much for the new and clean era.
Had the UCI handled that first positive properly from the start, Armstrong would have been kicked out of the 1999 Tour right then and there. But no, he went on to dominate the race, beating former Festina rider – and admitted doper – Alex Zülle by nearly seven-and-a-half minutes. Really, following the disastrous crash on the Passage du Gois on stage 2, which took out many of Armstrong’s top rivals, and a dominant performance in the stage 8 time trial at Metz, the GC picture was pretty much settled before the race ever hit the mountains.
So instead, Walsh spent his time working on what he viewed was the “real story” of the Tour, namely that Festina had changed nothing in the sport, other than to drive doping deeper underground.
Walsh spent time interviewing riders like Bassons, who was becoming increasingly frustrated both by the lack of a definitive statement from top GC contenders regarding doping and, more importantly, by the social pressure he was getting from other riders to drop the subject. Chief among those pressuring Bassons was the man in the yellow jersey, who, as Walsh reported, had threatened a cajoled the Frenchman, urging him to “shut up” about doping and efforts to clean up the sport.
Walsh saw Bassons as a lone hero. Documents released this week show Armstrong saw him as an idiot and “a pussy.”
By the time we reached Paris, Walsh was pretty much barred from the Postal camp. He left the Tour “with a bad taste” in his mouth, but he had his sights set firmly on Armstrong.
He would return to the Tour, but his reporting continued to focus not on what he believed was a parade of lies, but on the doping that produced those lies.
In 2002, Walsh uncovered evidence that Armstrong had been working with the notorious Dr. Michele Ferrari and had an article ready to run in the Sunday Times of London. Having learned of that fact, Armstrong did a preemptive interview in which he casually stated in passing that he had worked with Ferrari, as if it were no big deal.
Over the next couple of years, Walsh’s Armstrong file grew. He interviewed the Andreus, who consistently stood by their position that Armstrong had revealed his use of performance-enhancing drugs to doctors before beginning chemo-therapy in 1996. Frankie took some serious career hits, both in cycling and in broadcasting, but he stuck by his story. Betsy was characterized in any number of less-than-complimentary ways by the Armstrong camp, but she stuck by her story.
So, too, did former Postal soigneur, Emma O’Reilly, who, after speaking with Walsh in 2003 had to endure personal attacks on her character. But she stuck by her story.
Steffan, the original team doctor at Postal, was fired after some riders complained that he wasn’t doing enough to give them a competitive edge. Under pressure from Armstrong, Steffan was temporarily dismissed from his job on the Slipstream team. He was threatened, essentially blackmailed about his own personal struggles with substance abuse and he stuck by his story.
Working with French journalist Pierre Ballester, Walsh wrote “L.A. Confidentiel,” which was released on the eve of the 2004 Tour. In retrospect, that book still serves as the essential framework for the document bomb that was released this past week. The evidence made available to all of us just adds to the case and reaffirms that Walsh and Ballester were right from the start.
In response, Armstrong’s legal team filed suit in France and in Great Britain, where a translated summary of the book’s main charges appeared in the Sunday Times. The French suit was dropped, but the Times eventually offered an out-of-court settlement and Armstrong declared victory against the man he and Johan Bruyneel privately called “the Troll.”
On stage 18 of that Tour, Armstrong lashed out at another rider – Filippo Simeoni – who had made the “mistake” of testifying against Ferrari in a 2002 criminal matter. He was the only rider to do so. Simeoni never said anything about Armstrong and only testified as to his own experiences with Ferrari and doping practices.
You will probably recall that the tension between the two was already high before the 2004 Tour. When Simeoni found himself in a relatively unthreatening break on Stage 18, it was the man in the yellow jersey who set off in lone pursuit. Armstrong stayed with the break until Simeoni agreed to wait for the peloton, allowing the other escapees a chance.
Armstrong famously gave Simeoni the zip-the-lip gesture as the peloton approached and the Italian testified that the race leader also threatened him. Threat or no, Simeoni’s career was cut short, even though he did get some joy out of earning the 2008 Italian national champion’s jersey … but even then, he was regarded as something of a pariah. Nonetheless, he stuck by his story.
Is there any value to having access to liars?
I missed the Tour that year, as I was slated to cover the Vuelta and being part of a family with a 10-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl in the house didn’t make doing three-week grand tours all that easy at home. That said, I kinda wish I would have been there.
Walsh, as was his practice of many years, joined the VeloNews crew for the three-week journey through France. Embarrassingly, though, after pressure was exerted from the Armstrong camp, Walsh was informed that he was no longer welcome in the Velo-mobile.
WTF? Given a choice between standing by a friend and colleague or having access to “his Lanceness,” Walsh got the boot.
Later at the Vuelta, where I had the pleasure of taking my son with me, I tracked down Michael Barry for a quick post-stage interview. With young Philip at my side, we chatted about the race and the Postal team’s hopes for the Spanish Tour. We were just getting to the interesting part about the apparent tension between Floyd Landis and team management when Johan Bruyneel walked up, grabbed my press badge, glanced at the name and flicked it back into my chest.
“Pelkey, eh?” he said. “So, how’s your little Irish friend?”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“That fuckin’ troll, Walsh,” Bruyneel growled. “David Walsh … what did you do to get mentioned in the acknowledgments of that piece of shit book of his?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “We’re friends and we trade information now and then, but ….”
Suddenly Philip piped up and said “Mr. Walsh was at our house for dinner! Dad gave him a ride in our Army jeep. Maybe that was it.”
That made me smile. Bruyneel didn’t see the humor of the moment. He grunted, walked away, taking Barry with him. From that point forward, I had no access to Postal riders for the duration of the Vuelta, save for sitting in on press conferences … and it really didn’t matter.
A one-sided story?
As you note, Wednesday’s “reasoned decision” from USADA is pretty much a one-sided presentation of why the agency reached the conclusion that Lance Armstrong should be banned from competitive sport for life and that his results dating back to 1998 should be negated.
It was the “prosecution’s” case, that which would have been presented to an arbitration panel had it ever gone to arbitration. Personally I would have been interested – perhaps amused – to see how the defense would have presented its side. But remember, it’s not USADA’s fault that it didn’t go to arbitration.
The timing was actually kind of funny. Just one day earlier, Armstrong’s attorney, Tim Herman had sent a scathing five-page letter to USADA demanding the agency send its entire file to the UCI, not just a limited report packaged in a way to support its case.
Be careful what you wish for, dude.
Not only did USADA’s “Discovery Team” drop the whole package in the UCI’s lap, they let the rest of us sort through it, too.
As it turns out, the agency had justification for the delay. They produced the entire case as if it were presented at hearing. The reasoned decision itself was a detailed, beautifully footnoted, 200-page document, accompanied by nearly 1000 pages of appendices and supporting materials. Most damning, were the 26 sworn affidavits from witnesses, 11 of whom were former Armstrong teammates.
Herman didn’t even miss a beat.
“I’m not suggesting that they are all lying, but I am suggesting that each witness needs to have confrontation and cross examination to test the accuracy of their recollection,” he declared, with what I assume was a straight face.
And damn, if he isn’t right. The whole arbitration process is governed by Federal law, under 36 USC § 220522 (a)(8), which requires any athlete charged with a violation that might result in a period of ineligibility be provided “with fair notice and opportunity for a hearing.”
Part of that hearing process, of course, is the opportunity to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses. By gum, Herman hit the nail right on the head … but for the fact that his client declined to participate in the hearing.
It’s a little late now, Tim.
The UCI is left in the awkward position of either accepting the USADA case on its face value, or appealing the whole thing to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport where it will likely be defending its own conflicts of interest and apparent disinterest in pursuing the allegations of the sport’s highest-profile rider.
Read the decision. Scan the documents. Combined, they constitute the richest treasure trove of evidence underscoring just how corrupt riders – and governing bodies – can be. My bet is that the UCI will take a pass. They’ve stood up for Armstrong in the past, but there is considerable risk in doing so now … and very little benefit. The UCI isn’t likely to take a big risk.
No, the only people in this story willing to take risks for little or no benefit were those “winners” I mentioned earlier. And, actually, when you come to think of it, that fact alone suddenly makes the list of “winners” a lot longer. The real “winners” in all of this are those who love the world’s most beautiful sport. Fans and riders alike. Hopefully, cycling will emerge from this embarrassment all the better. I, for one, will keep my fingers crossed. I promise, though, never to say that I am “shocked” if it doesn’t turn out that way.
The Explainer is a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.