Lessons Learned From The Lance Armstrong Scandal

Guests

Tom Goldman, sports correspondent, NPR
Bill Strickland, editor-at-large, Bicycling Magazine

Lance Armstrong has resigned from his charity and lost millions of dollars in endorsements, days after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released its report alleging a widespread doping conspiracy inside his cycling team. In the court of public opinion, at least, the verdict seems to be in on Armstrong.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. After a long, comprehensive and scathing report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, one of the most admired athletes in the world offers no defense against charges that he cheated.

Yesterday, cyclist Lance Armstrong stepped down as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation, the cancer charity he founded in 1997. Then Nike, calling the evidence against Armstrong seemingly insurmountable, ended its endorsement deal with the seven-time Tour de France champion. Other sponsors followed suit.

Armstrong can be expected to be stripped of his title soon, could face demands to return prize money, and in the court of public opinion, it seems the verdict is now in. We want to hear from you. What are the lessons we've learned from the Lance Armstrong story? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we want to hear from meteorologists today. What do you make of the Weather Channel's decision to start naming winter storms? You can email us now: talk@npr.org. But first, Lance Armstrong, and we begin with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman, who joins us from his home office in Portland, Oregon.

And always welcome to have you on TALK OF THE NATION, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: And home of Nike world headquarters. Thank you, Neal. Love my home, Beaverton, Oregon.

CONAN: Lance Armstrong continues to protest his innocence after that voluminous case presented by USADA. Is there any room left for doubt?

GOLDMAN: Well, that depends on who you ask. I mean, you go through the 200-plus online pages and 1,000 total pages that were sent on to two international bodies that are reviewing it right now, and fairly damning, you know, lots of documents, scientific data. Sworn testimony from 26 witnesses was considered key, including 11 former Armstrong teammates.

You know, there will be those, certainly the Armstrong camp, and I asked them directly the other - yesterday if Lance Armstrong's actions of stepping down at Livestrong and also Nike and all these other sponsors jettisoning him, if that, you know, if it's time to acknowledge that the report is accurate/ And a one-word answer: no.

So - and there will be Lance Armstrong supporters who say no and, you know, parse the results in some way and say everyone was doing it. He's not a cheater. So - but for a growing number of people, it is, excuse me, overwhelming evidence and, you know, as you said, being convicted in the court of public opinion.

CONAN: As you mentioned, there's the opportunity he had to argue against this case, to defend himself in front of USADA. He declined to do that.

GOLDMAN: He did, in August. And, you know, he said he was tired of fighting this. It was too much of a strain on his family. Others will say, well, he realized that, you know, did he have a fight against all this evidence? He would have had the opportunity to testify and have people testify, and there would been cross-examination in this arbitration hearing, but he chose not to.

CONAN: You mentioned you are not far from Nike headquarters. I understand there was some protest about the Lance Armstrong situation there earlier this week.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. The timing was very interesting. A former cyclist, Paul Willerton, who actually rode with Greg LeMond, who was the greatest American rider before Lance Armstrong, and may end up being if these seven Tour de France titles are stripped. He held a rather lonely vigil starting at 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning in the pouring rain - as often happens in the Portland area. And he said about maybe 10 people joined him, and some news crews.

And I talked to him, and I was interested, OK. What was the response from, you know, from Nike employees? And he said, well, you know, people drove by. I got a few middle fingers and a few thumbs down. But he said that he also got a fair number of thumbs up and smiles and horn honking. And as it turned out, the next day, Nike acted.

Now, Paul Willerton, I asked him, wow. That's pretty good, 10, you know, a 10-man protest changing a Fortune 500 company's course. But, you know, I don't think anyone, you know, believes that happened that way. But, you know, it did represent kind of a growing dissatisfaction with not just the Armstrong story, but how corporations are, you know, dealing with prominent, iconic athletes.

CONAN: And some people might think that Lance Armstrong has already been stripped of those Tour de France titles. In fact, the USADA's report is being reviewed, as you reported a minute ago, by the International Cycling Union, which is the world body that oversees the sport.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's right. The UCI has until Halloween - read into that what you want - to look over the USADA report and then figure out what it wants to do. Does it want to challenge the report and appeal the USADA decision and the sanctions - which, you know, are banning Lance Armstrong from Olympic sport for life and stripping him of all his titles, including those Tour de France titles.

Does it want to appeal that? Or does it want to look at, you know, what appears to be this overwhelming evidence to say, that's it? We agree. We're not going to fight this. And at that point, you know, the titles are actually stripped. The Tour de France has announced that if that happens, it's not going to move up people who finished in a lower position. It's just going to leave the names blank on the seven Tours de France.

And then we assume that Lance's seven Tour de France yellow jerseys, which hang in his bicycle store in Austin, Texas will be returned.

CONAN: But what about the prize money? Won't they want that back, too?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that I don't know about. I'll get back to you on that.

CONAN: All right. In the meantime, let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman about lessons from the Lance Armstrong story after a damning report issued by the USADA, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with - this is Peter, and Peter's on the line with us from Mason City in Iowa.

PETER: Hi. I just wanted to ask people to get off their high horse. You know, people use substances all the time, OK. You know, take the - in the morning, people use coffee. They use caffeine to get up in the morning. Some people can't live without it, OK. Some people exist on those Red Bull drinks, which is like a form of amino acids. OK.

You slightly variate methamphetamine, and you call it Adderall or Ritalin. I mean, I just think that these elite athletes are using performance-enhancing drugs to be at the top of their game just like NASA builds spacesuits out of Mylar to keep their astronauts from burning up.

I mean, there are certain - there's risks there, but humans have to take those to push their achievements, and I just want people to get off their high ground. That's all.

CONAN: Well, just to follow up for a moment, Peter, the rules of the sport say you're not supposed to use these things. They're specifically listed. They're specifically banned. And they say if you use them, you'll be banned from the sport.

PETER: OK. But how do we define and distinguish between what substances are proper and savvy and what substances are contraband? That's what I don't get. Is - the substance Red Bull, how come those are deemed OK? How come Ritalin and Adderall is deemed OK, yet, you know, the other ones are not? I think there's a fine line in who makes up the rules to determine and what's the criteria based on. So you can have a little heart damage?

CONAN: Tom Goldman, can you help us out? Who makes the rules?

GOLDMAN: Well, different sports bodies make the rules. But I think, Peter, while probably insinuating that I'm at fault, too, for reporting on this and, you know, kind of, you know, as a lot of reporters do, you know, speak of this negatively - although I try to be balanced in this - I think Peter really brings up a very interesting point and a point that you hope, you know, that hope steers a discussion as we go forward here.

We have now had a succession of - you know, we had the baseball doping scandal, the so-called steroids era that everyone said is over, which is not over. And drugs - performance-enhancing drugs continue to be a problem, and I have that in quotations, if you like.

I think we need to start talking about this, about, you know, I think the big elephant in the room is, OK, can you make these things available? And the argument always comes back: But what about the kids? OK, so they shouldn't be - children shouldn't be exposed to this stuff. OK. Can you draw a sharp line and say, you know, we absolutely have to outlaw this with children, but athletes, who, you know, elite athletes, or athletes who are aspiring to become elite athletes, do we medically monitor these things and allow them to happen so they don't kill? Because a lot of times - and certainly when EPO began, you know, got into the peloton, you were having cyclists die because they didn't know how to use it without dying. So, you know, do you do that?

I think Peter sounds angry. I think a discussion like this should happen. Maybe it'll go forward.

CONAN: The reason, also, you mentioned that no one will be elevated to the top spot in those seven Tours de France is everybody who finished in the top three all those seven years, I think with possibly one exception, has been implicated in drug use, too.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, exactly right. And so what do you do? And there are who say that it is maybe a more telling testimony to this era, this drug-soaked era of cycling if you just leave it blank, because people looking in the history books will go - they'll either know who it was, whose name is not there, or they'll ask about it. And they'll go, huh, that was an interesting time. Where have we come since then? If you just put a name in, no one will ask those questions.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Shannon: Now that the contracts, titles, awards and his chairman's status have been stripped away, the measure of Lance's character will depend, for me, if he speaks up and, ahem, comes clean on behalf of his former teammates, a handful of whom still race. This is his only chance for redemption.

For me and Tom Goldman, we read that Lance Armstrong may be speaking, I think, tomorrow at a Livestrong event. And, well, do you expect him to come clean?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, his first public comments. It's the 15th anniversary of Livestrong, and it's a big fundraiser at the Austin, Texas convention center. You know, I talked to someone at Livestrong, and they said he'll make remarks, and there will probably be allusion to the news that has gone on, this tumultuous news that's gone on over the last week.

I don't know. It's speculation. You look at what we know of Lance Armstrong as this dogged competitor. Will he, you know, after telling this narrative for so many years that now appears to be false, will he - as the writer says, as Shannon says - come clean?

You know, there's another aspect to this, and I've encountered it covering other stories with doping athletes, is a lot of times they don't think they cheated. They don't think there's something that they have to come clean about. They consider it workplace doping. They consider it what I have to do or what I had to do to win and, you know, to - certainly to compete and to win.

And Neal, as you mentioned, you know, you look at the podium finishes during the years that Lance was winning, and almost all of them implicated in doping.

CONAN: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman on what we can learn from the apparent guilty verdict on Lance Armstrong. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. You can also reach us by email: talk@npr.org. When we come back, Bill Strickland of Bicycling Magazine, himself an Armstrong fan, talks about what happens now in competitive cycling. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The final legacy of Lance Armstrong remains to be written, but a first draft may be playing out on Wikipedia. In recent days, editors made it more difficult to update the Wiki page dedicated to Armstrong. It's marked semi-protected. Several people tweaked the page, parodying his name and replacing his accomplishments with allegations of drug abuse, what Wikipedia dubs vandalism.

We're talking about the apparent verdict - in the court of public opinion, at least - on Lance Armstrong. We want to hear from you. What are the lessons we've learned from the Lance Armstrong story? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest, NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman, who's been following this story for years. And also joining us now is Bill Strickland, a longtime fan of Lance Armstrong, a cyclist himself. Writing last year in Bicycling Magazine, where he's editor-at-large, he confessed that accepting that Lance cheated makes me want to cry - a 46-year-old guy. Can you imagine that?

Strickland is also the author of "Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Cycling's Most Controversial Champion," and he joins us now from member WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION, Bill.

BILL STRICKLAND: Hi, Neal. Hi, Tom.

GOLDMAN: Hi, Bill.

CONAN: And you said Armstrong defined - redefined cycling. What does this verdict mean now?

STRICKLAND: Well, we're about to find out. As the decision to strip the jerseys is made, the landscape of cycling is going to change. And I think every cyclist now is going to look back and think: Is it worth it to cheat? Is that - the price is pretty high now.

CONAN: And is it worth it to cheat? Is there any indication that cheating has diminished?

STRICKLAND: There are some indications that the sport is cleaner. Jonathan Vaughters, a former teammate of Lance who now directs his own team, has a great definition, which I like, is that - you know, Vaughters says, and I agree: You're never going to make the sport pure any more than you're going to make human nature pure. But hopefully we can make it clean enough so that a clean rider has a chance to win - which I don't think was the case in the EPO era. To compete and to have a chance at winning, you had to be dirty.

CONAN: There were any number of people who looked at the results in last year's Tour de France, particularly in the mountain stages, and noted people seemed to be climbing a little more slowly than in years past.

STRICKLAND: They are climbing slower. The fastest climbs on the tour generally came in the late '90s and through the 2000s. Last year, we saw people getting tired and having a bad day after they would have good days, rather than several good days in a row. It doesn't mean the entire peloton is clean. It doesn't mean the problem has gone away. It's - we all believe it's better.

CONAN: Then there is the question of, as you say, Lance himself. There were - you've told us in previous appearances on TALK OF THE NATION that he looked you in the eye and said: I didn't do it.

STRICKLAND: He did. We were on a ride. I think you played the clip earlier.

CONAN: Yeah.

STRICKLAND: You know, I don't blame him for that. I think about all the awful things I ever did in my life, and I lied about it at first, and I wouldn't have told a reporter about some of the bad things I'd done. I, you know, I lied to my parents when I did things wrong. You know, I think Lance is Lance, and I think it's going to be very, very hard for him to ever admit that he doped, but that's - I think that's what we should call for now. I really think that's the way forward for us.

CONAN: Do you think he will?

STRICKLAND: I don't think he will. I hope he will. I think there's more than a chance - more of a chance than there ever has been. And we're - you know, we're a nation of foregivers. We love to forgive people. Nike forgave Michael Vick, another athlete that they dropped from their sponsorship and brought back. You know, I think the path is there. It's well-worn. We know how that works. But I'm not sure if he could do it.

CONAN: There are also those who will say: Whatever he may have done in cycling, Lance Armstrong has raised millions of dollars for cancer research, and that is something we can't forget, either.

STRICKLAND: Right. Do the ends justify the means? And that's something that we all have to think really hard about. Whatever anyone thinks of Lance, Livestrong itself has a very good reputation. The group Charity Watch, which monitors charities, gives it its top rating. Eighty-two percent of every dollar they raise goes to programs. So, hard to say that nothing good came out of his bad acts.

GOLDMAN: Neal, let me - can I just interrupt for a quick second? The millions and millions of dollars, while put to good use, was not all going to research, though. I think that's what a lot of people feel, that it was, you know, that that was happening. No. It's for cancer-related programs, support systems for cancer patients and families.

CONAN: And there has been a recent controversy involving more than just Livestrong, but other cancer associations in Texas, where any number of doctors have resigned, saying money is going towards marketing programs for products rather than, again, for research. But there's controversy about that, as well.

So, anyway, let's get some callers in on the conversation. And this is Marshall(ph), Marshall with us from Holland, Michigan.

MARSHALL: Hi, guys. The earlier caller said that he was angry, or you could tell that he was mad about the doping. I guess I'm so sad for cycling right now because, you know, it paints a big, bad brush of negativity against a lot of cyclists back then. And I don't know. It's just so sad, because they had to - and I guess they meaning Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie, who were, you know, the teammates, they were pressured in so hard to do this.

And they didn't want to, and some team members left the team because of the pressure. And it just kind of painted - it was such a bad picture. And I actually liked George and Levi better as a cyclist, because they weren't so, you know, headstrong and out there. And they never got caught, either. You know, those two guys never got tested positive.

And they came out, and they testified against Lance. And I read the affidavit online, and it was convincing. It was completely, 100-percent damning. And when I read that, I was kind of a holdout as to whether Lance was going to - didn't do it, but those testimonials just were - again, they were the 100-percent, you know, that was it for me.

CONAN: And Bill Strickland, there's a couple of important points in what Marshall had to say. One of them was, at least according to the evidence presented by USADA, not just Lance Armstrong cheated himself, but industrialized it, at least within the U.S. Postal team.

STRICKLAND: That's clear in the USADA report, and when you read the affidavits. He definitely led the charge to dope. Of course, he was a team leader. He, you know, he led the charge to get the best equipment, to train a certain way, which races they were going to do. It makes sense that he would also be the most aggressive about the doping.

GOLDMAN: And again - oh, I'm sorry.

CONAN: Go ahead, Marshall.

MARSHALL: One more thing, Neal. You said: What do we learn from this? I guess, you know, for me, I'm not going to put as much - or I don't want my own kids to put as much, you know, hope in a sports figure as maybe some were doing with Lance. I mean, I like what he did for the cancer and everything, but, you know, there's - you know, he's just - all good sports figures are just for the sport. Love them, appreciate them, but you don't need to worship them.

CONAN: Don't put them on that pedestal. The Tour de France put him on the pedestal.

STRICKLAND: Tell that to Nike.

CONAN: Marshall, thanks very much for the call. But to follow up on another point he made, this is an email from Brian: Why did the witnesses come forward after all this time? Did they gain anything from doing that?

And Tom Goldman, Lance Armstrong's attorneys say these are people who were, well, they were getting something from their testimony to USADA.

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, and that's part of the rules. We spoke about rules before, as part of the - I'm not sure. Bill, you can maybe correct me on this, if it's part of the World Anti-Doping Code. But if you - but if an athlete who has been found to dope comes forward in a helpful way, they can have their sentences reduced. It's usually a two-year ban, and the bans in this case were six months.

This is - the Armstrong camp jumps on this, saying these were sweetheart deals. Well, these guys, you know, Leipheimer got fired from his team. This is, you know, for a lot of them, it's a very traumatic thing for them to be admitting for the first time that they doped. This is not - they're not just breezing in and getting their six months and going on.

There's talk that they're going to have their records stripped, as well, during the years that they doped. It's a very tough decision. Most of them, I believe, were faced with having to - they had given testimony earlier in another investigation, I believe - or maybe it was the USADA one - and it had become clear, you know, that they had not lied under oath and said that they had doped themselves.

And so, yes, they were giving reduced sentences. But that is part of the rules, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, that if you help, and if it's deemed that that help is, you know, is accurate and believable, then you do get the reduced sentence.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Kirby: Why is it that when an athlete uses the latest technology for mechanical advantage, like improved cycle wheels, they are lauded, but when they use the latest chemical technology for personal improvement, they are chastised?

Well, again, Bill Strickland, there's no rules against one, and there are rules against the other.

STRICKLAND: There are actually some restrictions, which drives cycling fans crazy, on the equipment. There's a minimum weight that the bikes can be, and there are regulations, specifically with aerodynamics, about how much surface area bikes can have, really Byzantine rules. So it's, you know, in its way, as unsatisfying to those who want to push the limits as the doping limits would be.

CONAN: Let's go next to Christine(ph), and Christine is on the line with us from Metamora in Illinois.

CHRISTINE: Excuse me. Hi. Thanks. Look, I don't care that Lance doped. What I care about and what makes me - what upsets me about this is that Lance - and I was a fan. But Lance went to a - he deliberately made an effort, with a lot of enthusiasm, to build an image of himself as better than other people, as cleaner than other people, of having more integrity than everyone else and just being stronger and more - had more willpower.

He specifically said many times, I'm doing this clean. No one else can do this. They have to be on drugs. And he exploited his cancer to get people's sympathy. He said, I would never hurt my body by putting drugs in it. I overcame cancer. It's just so crass, what he did. It's so crass and arrogant and self-centered. It's - to me, it's really shocking that he could pull the wool over everyone's eyes, including himself, as to what a good person he seemed to be.

CONAN: Bill Strickland, I wonder, do you think he fooled himself?

STRICKLAND: I think, to some extent, they all did. They felt like it was a level playing field, in that if they were all doping, it wasn't cheating. You know what, she brings up a good point that it's just unsavory because of his stance within the cancer community. And I think that's what offends most people, the public.

You know, interesting that Nike is renaming the building that was named for Lance, and the only other building they've renamed is the Joe Paterno Center. Both of those are, sort of, because of moral outrages.

CONAN: There was also that aggression that Christine refers to. And Lance Armstrong, if you put in the newspaper an allegation that he doped, he would take you to court. There were a couple of judgments in courts in Britain, where it's a lot easier to sue someone for libel than it is in this country.

And, again, questions - I asked Tom Goldman, earlier, about whether he might be asked to return the prize winnings from his various victories that will now - could now be stripped away. Might those newspapers, Bill Strickland, come back and say, wait a minute, turned out we were right, huh?

STRICKLAND: We're hearing that. Everyone is considering it - the newspapers, SCA, a company that sued to try to avoid giving him a bonus for winning the tour. The winnings are going to be tough. The winner generally takes the prize money and distributes it to his teammates. So unraveling this, it's going to be years and years.

CONAN: Christine, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking about lessons from the Lance Armstrong story. Tom Goldman is with us, the sports correspondent for NPR News in Portland, Oregon. Also with us, Bill Strickland, editor at large for Bicycling Magazine, with us from member station WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And one more go-round. This is an email from Dina(ph): Has anyone actually read the report issued by USADA? It is far from the damning evidence the media makes it out to be. I've yet to finish it, but I'm struck early on by how much of the testimony is based on people's understanding or a belief about what Armstrong was doing at the time. Understandings and beliefs are not facts.

And, Bill Strickland, we asked Tom Goldman about this earlier. Is there any room left for doubt?

STRICKLAND: Oh, I don't think so. The accounts corroborate each other. There are bank statements for payments to Dr. Ferrari, a doctor and cycling coach. He was banned from the sport. It's just - it's an overwhelming amount of evidence. Even if you disagree with some of it in the USADA report, it's just hard to read it and come away with any other thought except that Lance Armstrong doped.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Travis(ph), Travis with us from Gainesville.

TRAVIS: Hi. Yeah. My comment and question has to do with the actual technology of testing. It seems to me that if a rider can be tested, you know, at the end of the race or beginning of the race, effectively, that if they're going to be disqualified, it would be right there on the spot. And what technology is, you know, in the works for being able to test in that way?

CONAN: And this is one of those leapfrog technologies. Bill Strickland, it seems every test that they come up with was a little bit behind the latest composition of cocktail of drugs.

STRICKLAND: Sure. As with most crimes, criminals are ahead of the enforcement. There's a great part in the USADA report where it takes months and months and months, and I think maybe years, to develop one test. And Ferrari, the doctor, takes about an hour to figure out how to get around it.

CONAN: Travis, thanks very much for the call.

TRAVIS: Thank you.

CONAN: And the idea that this is going to be - are we testing the wrong things? Obviously, testing the athletes is important, but do investigations need to broaden, Bill Strickland?

STRICKLAND: Well, when you look at who's been caught in recent years, it comes not through the testing, but through law enforcement. It's interesting to think of this as a legal issue and to think that the testing might just sort of put a tamp on the activity. But the way we're going to catch people, will actually be through legal procedures and investigations.

CONAN: And do those agencies, Tom Goldman, like USADA, have the kinds of resources to be the kinds of cops to infiltrate organizations and see what's going on?

GOLDMAN: Well, I'm not sure exactly. You know, they're called a quasi-governmental organization, USADA. It was approved by Congress. But I believe they get a fair amount of their money from contracts they have with people they work for, primarily, I think in the case of USADA, the US Olympic committee. You know, I don't know whether that money is going up or down. I know people have said, during this whole Lance Armstrong situation, that they should have their funding cut off. But, yeah, so I can't answer, you know, where the money is going.

CONAN: Tom Goldman, as always, thanks very much for being with us today.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Tom Goldman, sports correspondent for NPR News joined us from Portland, Oregon. Bill Strickland, thank you also.

STRICKLAND: Thank you.

CONAN: Bill Strickland, editor-at-large for Bicycling magazine and author of "Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Cycling's Most Controversial Champion." He joined us today from member station WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Coming up, hurricanes, tropical storms, well, they get names. Now, blizzards will too. Bryan Norcross of the Weather Channel will join us to explain why. If you're a meteorologist, do you think this is a good idea? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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