SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There are athletes and then there are those who 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 Mr. Armstrong openly acknowledge in 1996 that he'd use several performance enhancing drugs. Now, what you're about to hear are the details from that testimony and from one witness who says she was there when Lance Armstrong said he used growth hormone, cortisone, EPO, steroids and testosterone. Mr. Armstrong is angrily denying that the event ever happened. NPR's Tom Goldman has our story.
TOM GOLDMAN: In October 1996, Lance Armstrong was not yet a Tour de France champion, but he'd 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 October 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 October 27, a few days after surgery, Armstrong was recovering in 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 that time, they weren't yet married. They were engaged. Frankie was a cycling teammate of Armstrong's.
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 nametags 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. Here's a quote from Betsy Andreu's deposition.
I said, I think we should leave to give you your privacy. I said that to Lance. And Lance said, that's okay, you can stay. And I turned to Frankie and I said, I think we should leave. And Frankie said, no, Lance, said it's okay. 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 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 the following.
BETSY ANDREU: I answered every question truthfully and honestly. It is 100 percent truthful.
GOLDMAN: 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. The following is from his deposition, testimony under oath in response to a lawyer's questions:
Question. What is it Mr. Armstrong said in response to the doctor asking him about use of performance-enhancing drugs?
Frankie. 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?
Frankie. 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?
Frankie. 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 Andreus could've heard wrong.
TIM HERMAN: Mr. Armstrong was taking steroids at the time as part of his post-operative treatment. It's very possible that there could've been mentioned of steroids and EPO in this conversation with these two doctors indicating either the current regimen or the regimen that Armstrong was going to be subject to after this surgery or when he got out of the hospital.
GOLDMAN: Armstrong's primary cancer doctor, Craig Nichols, submitted a sworn affidavit in the case saying, quote, "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. This is from the deposition.
Frankie. 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?
Frankie. 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.
Question. What did you say to him when he said that?
Frankie. I remained quiet.
Question. Did you consider it odd that he was telling you that the hospital incident...
Frankie 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.
Lance Armstrong swore under oath that the hospital incident did not happen. So did Stephanie McIlvain. In 1996, McIlvain worked for Oakley(ph), a company that makes sunglasses and that has sponsored Lance Armstrong for many years. McIlvain also was in the hospital room on October 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?
Stephanie McIlvain denied the hospital incident under oath in late 2005. According to Greg LeMond, she said something completely different the year before.
GREG L: I'm Greg LeMond, three-time Tour de France winner, raced professionally for 14 years and retired in 2004.
GOLDMAN: In July of 2004, former Tour de France champion Greg LeMond had a conversation with Stephanie 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, quote, "I was in that room. I heard it." End quote. Greg LeMond says McIlvain felt Armstrong's alleged admission tarnishes his legendary story about coming back from cancer, a story that's included repeated denials of performance-enhancing drug use.
MOND: I know that she was incredibly disappointed. She had a kid that had some disabilities and she was angry about - that he was fooling the cancer community with his - I guess what she said - lies.
GOLDMAN: Greg 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, Start said he ran into Stephanie McIlvain at the 2004 Tour de France and they had a brief conversation. Start had heard about Armstrong's alleged admission of performance-enhancing drug use. In his testimony, James Start said, I asked her did it definitely happen, and she said, yes, it did.
NPR called Stephanie McIlvain to ask about the discrepancy between her sworn testimony and the statements by Startt and Greg 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 yesterday in the French newspaper Le Monde. Within hours, Lance Armstrong released a statement in which he said, quote, "The latest story, which alleges an admission of using performance-enhancing drugs in hospital in 1996, is today as absurd and untrue as when it was first circulated years ago. It never happened." End quote.
Several days prior to the statement, NPR sent emails and made phone calls to Armstrong asking for an interview, either face to face or on the telephone. Armstrong never responded, but his long-time friend and agent, Bill Stapleton, did. In an email, 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, Lance Armstrong is asked the following.
Question. Do you deny the statements that Ms. Andreu attributed to you in the Indiana University Hospital?
Armstrong. One hundred percent. Absolutely.
Question. Do you also deny what Mr. Andreu said regarding those statements?
Armstrong. One hundred percent.
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.
Lance Armstrong is asked if he can explain why Betsy Andreu would make up a story about the hospital room. Armstrong says he has no idea, other than, quote, "She hates me." End quote.
ANDREU: Lance and I used to be good friends.
GOLDMAN: Betsy Andreu.
ANDREU: 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.
GOLDMAN: Kristin was Armstrong's first wife. Betsy Andreu acknowledges that over the years her friendship with 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.
ANDREU: I'm sorry that it upsets him so much that I refuse to lie under oath. I was always going to tell the truth.
GOLDMAN: When asked about Frankie Anreu'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 two and a half 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.
HERMAN: Had they concluded that Lance Armstrong had cheated, we would not be in possession of a seven and half million-dollar award. The proof related to Armstrong's use or non-use of performance-enhancing drugs was the controlling issue in the case.
GOLDMAN: The dispute was resolved early this year. But the issue of whether or not Lance 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 October 27, 1996.
Lance 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 a steep mountain climbs of the Tour de France, but Armstrong still finds himself fighting in court and in the media to preserve his legacy.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.