Debbie Elliott speaks with Tom Goldman about new allegations of banned drug use by seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. NPR reviewed sworn testimony from a lawsuit, in which two people allege they heard Armstrong tell a doctor that the cyclist had taken steroids and other banned substances in 1996. Armstrong has denied the latest allegations and stands by his earlier claims that he has never taken banned performance-enhancing drugs.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong is dealing with new allegations of performance-enhancing drug use. In sworn testimony, two witnesses say they heard Armstrong admit in 1996 that he had used banned substances. Armstrong is vehemently denying that the conversation occurred. NPR's Tom Goldman has been investigating this story for the last few months and joins us now. Hello there, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN reporting:
ELLIOTT: What stands out about these allegations? There have been so many.
GOLDMAN: What stood out is that two people, in particular, under oath, who were testifying in a lawsuit that had been filed by Lance Armstrong, that they said when they were in an Indiana University hospital in 1996, where Armstrong was being treated for testicular cancer, that they heard him say that he had used a number of banned performance-enhancing drugs, including EPO, an oxygen-boosting substance, steroids, testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone.
What's striking about that is with all the sports doping news these days, you rarely, if ever, hear about an admission by an athlete - certainly a super-athlete like Lance Armstrong - you rarely hear an admission that they used something, albeit an alleged admission.
ELLIOTT: What does Lance Armstrong say about this?
GOLDMAN: Predictably, he is taking the offensive here, and he's saying it's absurd, it's untrue, and that he's one of the most tested athletes during his career.
ELLIOTT: Isn't he?
GOLDMAN: He is, but we should put this in the back of our heads that these days for an athlete, certainly elite athletes, to say I've never failed a test doesn't hold as much weight as maybe it did in the past, because the whole game, now in particular, is to find the drugs that aren't detected, and there are still some drugs that aren't detected by the testers.
ELLIOTT: So I have question about how this would have played out. It seems unusual to me that a doctor would be asking these confidential questions in front of other people.
GOLDMAN: It's important to remember that in the testimony, the sworn testimony of two of the people in that room, in particular, one woman, Betsy Andreu, who is the wife of a former cycling teammate of Armstrong's, the way she laid it out, it wasn't just that doctors walked into the room, started firing questions, very personal questions.
They apparently walked into the room. Betsy says that she said to her husband, we should leave and give Lance, you know, his privacy here. And Lance said, according to her, it's okay, you can stay, we're friends. And she said again, to her husband, I think we should leave. And her husband said, Lance said it's okay. We can stay. And it was then, according to her, that the doctors started asking questions. After several questions they asked, have you ever taken performance-enhancing drugs?
ELLIOTT: Tom, what do you think all of this means? I mean, these are allegations before Lance Armstrong won his Tour de France, so how do we put this in perspective?
GOLDMAN: We struggled with what to do with this, and we knew that people would discount this story because it's 10 years ago, and it did not involve the Tour de France years, 1999-2005. What we figured was, here's something that's pretty compelling: sworn testimony, under oath testimony, alleging these things about him.
ELLIOTT: NPR's Tom Goldman, thank you.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
ELLIOTT: To read Tom Goldman's full report on Lance Armstrong, go to NPR.org.
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Lance Armstrong at an April 1996 news conference.
Mike Powell/Getty Images
Mike Powell/Getty Images
Lance Armstrong jokes with fellow American Andy Hampsten during a 1996 news conference to preview the Tour DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware.
Mike Powell/Getty Images
There are athletes and, then, there are those that transcend sport. Lance Armstrong is one of the latter. His record seven straight Tour de France victories after coming back from cancer has become legend. Throughout his storied career, he fought off suspicions that he cheated by using banned drugs. Those suspicions have followed him into retirement.
According to sworn testimony reviewed by NPR, two witnesses heard Armstrong openly acknowldege in 1996 that had used several performance enhancing drugs. What you are about to hear are the details from that testimony and from one witnesses who says she was there when Lance Armstrong said he used "growth hormone, cortisone, EPO, steroids and testosterone." Armstrong is angrily denying that the incident happened.
In October 1996, Lance Armstrong was not yet a Tour de France champion, but he had won a couple of stages in cycling's biggest race and a 1993 road racing world championship solidified his status as an up-and-comer on the elite cycling scene.
On Oct. 2, 1996, however, Armstrong was stopped cold by a diagnosis of testicular cancer. Three weeks later, he had surgery to remove tumors that had spread to his brain. On Oct. 27, a few days after surgery, Armstrong was recovering at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis.
He was surrounded by a handful of friends in a conference room. The TV was on. Texas-born Armstrong and a few of the others were watching a pro football game between the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins. Among those in the room were Frankie and Betsy Andreu. At the time they weren't yet married; they were engaged. Frankie was Armstrong's cycling teammate.
What allegedly happened in that hospital room now raises questions about whether Armstrong used banned drugs on his way to the pinnacle of bicycle racing.
The Andreus testified under oath last fall about their experience in the hospital room. It was part of a legal case involving a lawsuit Lance Armstrong filed against a company that owed him money.
In her sworn testimony in that case, Betsy Andreu recounts what happened after, she says, two doctors, wearing white coats and name tags, walked into the hospital room. Andreu never identified the doctors, but says in her testimony they were not Armstrong's two primary oncologists, or his brain surgeon.
In her deposition, Betsy Andreu testified:
I said, I think we should leave to give you your privacy. I said that to Lance. And Lance said, that's OK. You can stay. And I turned to Frankie and I said, I think we should leave. And Frankie said, no, Lance said it's OK. We can stay. And so the doctor asked him a few questions, not many, and then one of the questions he asked was... have you ever used any performance-enhancing drugs? And Lance said yes. And the doctor asked, what were they? And Lance said, growth hormone, cortisone, EPO, steroids and testosterone.
When asked last week about her testimony, Betsy Andreu said, "I answered every question truthfully and honestly. It is 100 percent truthful."
Throughout his career, Lance Armstrong always has denied in the strongest terms that he ever used performance-enhancing drugs.
Frankie Andreu and Armstrong were close friends over the years. They lived and trained together in Italy in the early 1990s; they were teammates when Armstrong won his first two Tours-de-France... in 1999 and 2000. In his deposition, Frankie Andreu expressed his reluctance at having to testify; he was subpoenaed. But he still told the same story as his wife about the hospital room in 1996.
This exchange is from his deposition — testimony under oath, in response to a lawyer's questions.
QUESTION: And what is it Mr. Armstrong said in response to the doctor asking him about use of performance-enhancing drugs?
ANDREU: I don't know how the doctor phrased the question, but Lance's response was that he had taken EPO and testosterone and growth hormone and cortisone.
QUESTION: Did he say when he had taken these drugs?
ANDREU: ....when the doctor proposed the question, he said, 'Have you taken anything in the past or previous?' So obviously, it was sometime before that point.
QUESTION: Were you surprised when Mr. Armstrong said he had taken those various performance-enhancing drugs?
ANDREU: Yeah. I was surprised.
On the key issue of what was asked and what was said in the hospital room, Betsy Andreu insists she heard a doctor ask about performance-enhancing drugs, and heard Armstrong answer with a list of banned substances. Frankie Andreu insists he heard Armstrong respond with a list, too. Still Armstrong's lawyer, Tim Herman, says the Andreu's could have heard wrong.
"Mr. Armstrong was taking steroids at the time, as part of his post-operative treatment," Herman said. "It's very possible that there could've been mention of steroids and epo in this conversation with these two doctors indicating either the current regimen, or the regimen that Armstrong was gonna be subject to after this surgery, or when he got out of the hospital."
Armstrong's primary cancer doctor, Craig Nichols, submitted a sworn affidavit in the case saying, "I have never seen any evidence, either from myself or any other doctor, that indicates Lance Armstrong admitted, suggested or indicated that he has ever taken performance-enhancing drugs."
Still, what happened in that hospital room in 1996 seemed to be on Armstrong's mind, according to Frankie Andreu's sworn deposition. In his testimony, Andreu recalls a bike ride he and Armstrong took within a year of the alleged hospital room incident. Andreu says Armstrong asked how Betsy reacted to what happened in the hospital room. From the deposition:
ANDREU: I said Betsy freaked out a little bit, and, you know, she and I got into a couple of arguments, but then it kind of went away.
QUESTION: Did Armstrong respond or say anything further about it?
ANDREU: No. It was very short.
But according to Andreu's testimony, Armstrong came back to the issue last year when he called Frankie Andreu just a few days before Andreu was deposed. In his deposition, Frankie Andreu is asked "is it your testimony that Mr. Armstrong called you and said it was his recollection, that the hospital incident never took place or didn't happen the way you've recollected?" Andreu answers, "Yes. Correct."
The deposition continues:
QUESTION: What did you say to him when he said that?
ANDREU: I remained quiet.
QUESTION: Did you consider it odd that he was telling you about the hospital incident?
Andreu interrupts and says, "I considered it odd that he even called me, because I hadn't spoken with Lance in probably two and a half years."
Armstrong swore under oath that the hospital incident did not happen. So did Stephanie McIlvain. In 1996, McIlvain worked for Oakley, a company that makes sunglasses and that has sponsored Armstrong for many years. McIlvain also was in the hospital room on Oct. 27, 1996, but in her sworn deposition, here is what she says:
QUESTION: Were you ever at a hospital room or other part of the hospital with Mr. Armstrong where he said anything about performance-enhancing drugs?
QUESTION: Do you have any recollection of any doctor in your presence asking Mr. Armstrong if he used in the past any performance-enhancing drugs or substances?
McIlvain denied the hospital incident under oath in late 2005. According to Greg LeMond, she said something completely different, the year before. In July of 2004, former Tour de France champion Greg LeMond had a conversation with McIlvain, in which they discussed the Indiana hospital room incident. NPR viewed a transcript of that conversation. Referring to Lance Armstrong's alleged admission of drug use, McIlvain told Lemond, "I was in that room. I heard it." LeMond says McIlvain felt Armstrong's alleged admission tarnished his legendary story about coming back from cancer, a story that's included repeated denials of performance-enhancing drug use. "I know that she was incredibly disappointed," said LeMond. "She had a kid that had some disabilities, and she was angry... that he was fooling the cancer community with his kind of, I guess what she said lies."
LeMond's account is backed up by a veteran cycling photographer and journalist named James Startt. He was also deposed in the case last year. Under oath, Startt said he ran into McIlvain at the 2004 Tour de France, and they had a brief conversation. Startt had heard about Armstrong's alleged admission of performance-enhancing drug use. In his testimony, Startt said "I asked her did it definitely happen. And she said, yes it did."
NPR called McIlvain to ask about the discrepancy between her sworn testimony and the statements by Startt and LeMond. She said she'd rather not comment. McIlvain's lawyer said "we refuse to talk under any circumstances."
The story of the alleged hospital room incident emerged Friday in the French newspaper Le Monde. Within hours, Lance Armstrong released a statement, in which he said "the latest story, which alleges an admission of using performance enhancing drugs in a hospital in 1996, is today as absurd and untrue as when it was first circulated years ago. It never happened."
Several days prior to the statement, NPR sent e-mails and made phone calls to Armstrong asking for an interview, either face-to-face or on the telephone. Armstrong never responded, but his longtime friend and agent Bill Stapleton did. In an e-mail, Stapleton referred NPR to Armstrong's lawyer, and said that neither he, Stapleton, nor Armstrong, would make themselves available for interviews about the alleged hospital room incident. NPR did discuss the matter with Armstrong's lawyer, Tim Herman, and examined medical records he provided.
In Armstrong's deposition from the legal case, his sworn statements are consistent with his past denials of performance-enhancing drug use. Under oath, Armstrong is asked, "Do you deny the statements that Ms. Andreu attributed to you in the Indiana University hospital?" Armstrong replies, "100 percent. Absolutely." He is then asked, "Do you also deny what Mr. Andreu said regarding those statements?" Again Armstrong replies, "100 percent."
The deposition continues:
QUESTION: Do you have any recollection while these individuals were there that a doctor or doctors came into the room and discussed with you your medical treatment or your condition?
ARMSTRONG: Absolutely not. That didn't happen.
QUESTION: Did any medical person ask you, while you were at the Indiana University Hospital, whether you had ever used any sort of performance-enhancing drugs or substances?
ARMSTRONG: No. Absolutely not.
Armstrong is asked if he can help explain why Betsy Andreu would make up a story about the hospital room. Armstrong says he has no idea, other than "she hates me."
"Lance and I used to be good friends," Betsy Andreu told NPR. "I would go to his house and I would cook for him; I would talk to him on the phone about baby questions; I used to go out to dinner with Frankie and Lance and Kristin, often." Kristin was Armstrong's first wife. Betsy Andreu acknowledges that over the years, her friendship with Lance Armstrong soured. But she says that doesn't mean she would do something, in her words, so reprehensible as make up a story about the hospital room. "I'm sorry that it upsets him so much that I refuse to lie under oath. I was always going to tell the truth," she said.
When asked about Frankie Andreu's testimony, Lance Armstrong rejects it, saying in his deposition he thinks Andreu was trying to back up his wife.
The case involving all this sworn testimony grew out of a lawsuit Armstrong filed in 2004. He sued a company, called SCA, that had promised in a contract to pay Armstrong a $5 million bonus if he won his sixth straight Tour de France in 2004. He did win, but SCA withheld the bonus after new doping allegations against Armstrong surfaced that same year. A panel of arbitrators ultimately ruled in Armstrong's favor. SCA was forced to pay the $5 million bonus, plus $2.5 million more. SCA contends it lost because the bonus contract was poorly written, and not because SCA failed to prove Armstrong had cheated by using banned substances.
But Armstrong's attorney Tim Herman says the outcome had everything to do with doping. "Had they concluded that Lance Armstrong had cheated, we would not be in possession of a $7.5 million award," said Herman. "The issue, and the proof related to Armstrong's use or non-use of performance-enhancing drugs was the controlling issue in the case."
The dispute was resolved early this year, but the issue of whether or not Armstrong ever took performance-enhancing drugs still is unresolved for some, particularly Betsy Andreu. The stay-at-home mother of three kids remains adamant about what she says she heard on Oct. 27, 1996.
Armstrong remains busy in his retirement, spending time at celebrity events and raising money and awareness about cancer research. He no longer battles opponents on the steep mountain climbs of the Tour de France, but Armstrong still finds himself fighting, in court and in the media, to preserve his legacy.