Episode 417: Lance Armstrong and The Business of Doping : Planet Money In this episode, we consider a world where everybody cheats, and where you can't win unless you game the regulators: Professional cycling.
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Episode 417: Lance Armstrong and The Business of Doping

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Episode 417: Lance Armstrong and The Business of Doping

Episode 417: Lance Armstrong and The Business of Doping

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DAVID KESTENBAUM, HOST:

Hey, everybody. It's David here. Today, we are replaying one of our favorite shows from the archive. This one is from 2012, and it's about Lance Armstrong, the Superman cyclist who, at the time, was in the middle of this huge doping scandal. Zoe Chace wanted to understand exactly how the whole doping thing worked and how cheating became so widespread, so normal. Here's the story.

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ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: You don't have to be a cycling fan to appreciate this video.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Still, (unintelligible) waiting for the move from Lance Armstrong as close to the finish. There is a time gap, but the man in yellow is running active with that usual determination. (Unintelligible) in the slip stream. Armstrong is coming with an incredible rush.

CHACE: You have never seen humans move this fast. They cover incredible distances in seconds, it seems. One cyclist jumps out in front of the other one. He seems to come out of nowhere. It's incredibly exciting and breathtaking and amazing, even if you don't understand anything about this sport. It turns out now watching these old videos of professional cycling, it's a little bit bittersweet. A lot of these cyclists were doping, including the guy who won the Tour de France that year. In fact, he won it seven times in a row.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Is there any stopping Lance Armstrong in this Tour de France? And the answer is no, there is not.

CHACE: You've probably heard about this big report on the Lance Armstrong that just came out from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, USADA. But one of the things you realize when you're reading it is that doping is a business. You need an organization, you need the latest technology, you need employees, and you need a leader. According to the official report and other cyclists involved, the leader of the U.S. professional cycling doping operation was Lance Armstrong. He ran the most successful, sophisticated and professionalized doping program that sport has ever seen.

DANIEL COYLE: The world that we thought pro cycling was, the person we thought Lance Armstrong was, was one layer. And there was another world underneath that, another system underneath that, another organization underneath that. There was a massive secret.

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CHACE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Zoe Chace. And today, we're going to lay it all out for you, how, according to this official report and the people involved, the doping business worked, how it stayed hidden for so long. The person you just heard talking about the underground world of doping, that's Daniel Coyle. He's a journalist that has followed Lance Armstrong for years. And he wrote "The Secret Race: Inside The Hidden World Of The Tour De France" with this cyclist, Tyler Hamilton. And Hamilton was Armstrong's teammate for years. The way these guys tell it, the race for the Tour de France is part Silicon Valley startup, part Cosa Nostra.

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CHACE: The story they tell starts in 1998. Lance Armstrong had been diagnosed with cancer in the mid-90s. And the year he came back, he was a little nervous. And that's when he met Tyler Hamilton.

TYLER HAMILTON: He's always been known to have a - to be very confident. And you could tell as his - you could tell his confidence was a little bit, you know, rattled. I don't think he knew, you know, if he was going to be able to find his old legs, so to speak.

CHACE: So, Lance Armstrong joins this team sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service. And Armstrong became the team's leader. The USADA report explains that Lance Armstrong made all the key decisions - who to hire, how to train, what to focus on. And the first big one, he decides his team is going to skip most other cycling competitions. They're just going to focus on winning the big one, the Tour de France.

COYLE: If you were to draw an organizational chart, you would put Lance at the top with the team director, Johan Bruyneel, just underneath him. And his style of management, if he were a CEO, would be the kind of a CEO who knows everything, every bit of detail. He had a real desire for control. Part of that stemmed from his natural character, and part of that stemmed from the secret world that he was trying to create, maintain and sort of optimize, try to get those results every July.

CHACE: Hamilton says he and the rest of the team, they were already using performance-enhancing drugs. But because of Armstrong's obsessive personality and charisma and leadership, Tyler Hamilton says Armstrong takes this to a whole another level.

HAMILTON: Lance had to win. It was, I don't know, just something that he was probably born with. And, you know, it made him an incredible athlete, an incredible competitor because he had to win. Winning's like a drug, you know. You know, the more you win, the more you want to win some more. And the more you win, the more money you make.

CHACE: Once you've got a determined CEO, you need a strategic plan. Coyle says the entire doping operation, this business was laser-focused on one thing, the amount of red blood cells in the blood of the riders. The technical term is the hematocrit level.

COYLE: When you were on Postal, you were expected to have your hematocrit at a certain level or else.

CHACE: And this is really different from doping you hear about in baseball. That's, you know, steroid injections to give you a powerful swing. In cycling, it's all about red blood cells in your body. Red blood cells contain oxygen. That oxygen is power. The number of red blood cells in your body, that is quite literally what separates the winners from the losers.

COYLE: Blood is power. If your perform - if your hematocrit drops by one point, your power drops by 1 percent. Maintaining that hematocrit is job number one.

CHACE: Coyle says everyone on the team had to have high levels, not just Armstrong, because cycling is a team sport. It might not look like a team sport if you don't know what you're watching, but that's exactly what it is. The leader, Lance Armstrong, is totally dependent on the rest of the team. The idea is to surround him so that he can draft off them. Basically, they ride in front of him and reduce the wind resistance so he doesn't have to work so hard. It's a pack of cyclists surrounding him, pulling him along. And the Tour de France is an especially grueling race. It's three weeks long in the hot French sun. Day after day, you ride for six hours at a time.

COYLE: So for day after day after day after day, they will ride, and he will ride behind them. And so in a way, their legs, their blood is a direct extension of his legs and his blood.

CHACE: Coyle says Armstrong managed a massive amount of information - about the right training, the right weight, the right blood levels. And the information was just as critical, Coyle says, as the biking.

COYLE: You know, this really was an information race. You know, it was an athletic race. We saw that result on the road. But underneath that was a chess game of information, and that information had to do with what you should do to optimize your performance for each race. And the man who supplied that, his supplier, was a Italian doctor named Dr. Michele Ferrari.

CHACE: To hear Hamilton and Coyle explain it, Dr. Ferrari is Lance's right-hand man. He's the chief technology officer sort of of this business. He's the secret sauce, the guy who actually makes the operation run smoothly. And by all accounts, he was brilliant in this very sketchy field, the field of performance-enhancing drugs. He knew exactly what levels the team needed to hit in order to win. And the USADA report says Dr. Ferrari came up with the precise cocktails to manage their performance.

COYLE: He's their R&D department, you know? He kept them ahead. When the test is coming, here's how to beat the test. You - and he would have different combinations, different ways. He would experiment with things. He was R&D, and he was really, really good.

CHACE: And one of Ferrari's most important skills, they say, was keeping the team from getting caught. As with any business, there are regulations that they need to comply with or at least appear to comply with. In this case, it's the constant drug tests, riders being asked to submit urine samples, blood samples. And Ferrari was brilliant at staying ahead of the regulators. And he worked exclusively with Lance Armstrong's team. Here's Coyle again.

COYLE: Ferrari was not allowed to work with any other Tour de France contenders. That was the masterstroke for Lance, to pay Ferrari enough that he would supply him exclusively with knowledge.

CHACE: The thing about running a secret doping operation, it's got to stay secret. For one thing, you got to distribute your product without getting caught. So, Coyle and Hamilton say Lance Armstrong came up with this plan.

COYLE: And the plan was very simple. It was to hire Lance's gardener.

HAMILTON: Somebody on a secret phone would call him. His name was Philippe. He called him Motoman.

COYLE: Who trailed the tour on a motorcycle with a blood-boosting drug called EPO in his thermos and deliver it during the tour.

HAMILTON: He would typically drop it off to somebody on the team, like a team staff member. And yeah, so we were able to cheat throughout the whole tour by every probably third or fourth day taking a, you know, a shot of EPO.

CHACE: Hamilton and Armstrong back in the early days, they called the EPO Edgar after Edgar Allen Poe. And you would've thought Edgar was another member of the team.

HAMILTON: Yeah, and then we - it worked because we won the tour, you know. You know, we cheated to win, to victory.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The Italian crowd here now cheering on Lance Armstrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This has to be the greatest comeback in any sport at all. The fact that Armstrong managed to conquer cancer was unbelievable.

CHACE: That win in 1999 changed everything. First, it established Postal as the best team in the world and, Tyler Hamilton says, the best doping business in the world. And at this point, everyone was doing it.

HAMILTON: To be honest, back then those kind of races, I was winning at the highest level, whether it were not a chance, not a chance you could win that - those back then cleanly, not a chance.

CHACE: If you weren't doping, you figured the next guy was, so you started doping. And if you wanted to win and it seemed like the winners were doping, you wanted to dope really, really well. And according to Tyler Hamilton, that was the game that all the cyclists at this level were in. To stay on top, any good business has to innovate, and that's what the Postal team does. Coyle says when the drug test for EPO got better, the team got better at getting around them. Dr. Ferrari switched techniques to blood transfusions. You take out your own blood when it had lots of red blood cells in it. Remember, that's the key there. That's where the oxygen is. That's where your power is. You'd pull it out of your body, store it in a fridge. And then during the race, when your red blood cell count was down, you'd put it back in and boost the count up. It's your own blood, but it's still doping. It's creepy, and it is completely illegal.

COYLE: In the weeks and months before the tour, riders for the team, not just Lance, but the sport riders, would bank blood. They would withdraw one pint at a time of blood, and they - it would be placed in a fridge, where it could stay for up to about three weeks, 25, 26 days.

CHACE: In a hospital or how did they do that?

COYLE: According to the USADA report, Armstrong had a medical fridge his apartment in Girona, where he - in Girona, Spain, where he kept his own. The other was kept allegedly in a clinic in Valencia, Spain, that belonged to a team doctor.

CHACE: It is really hard to test for this. After all, it's their own blood. The thing you need to be careful about is not getting caught with a suitcase full of blood bags. So where did they hide it? Coyle says basically right under the nose of the officials. One of the Postal team assistants traveled with this dog named Poladore (ph).

COYLE: Underneath Poladore's kennel, they would - on the floor of the kennel, they would lay out the blood bags right from the freezer. They'd put a piece of foam over them or blanket, and the dog would go in on top of that, and they would drive to the tour stage.

CHACE: Coyle says they'd use these secret phones. Team members would get new ones every season and text the couriers. It's 167 miles to Paris, the text would read. It really meant, meet me at our prearranged hotel with my blood in room 167. Tyler Hamilton says the feeling of putting your own blood back inside your body a couple weeks later is something you never forget.

HAMILTON: You know, it was the middle of the summer in July in France. It's so hot there. But it made - when I got the blood reinfused, it - my whole body temperature went down because the blood was cold, and I got, like, shivery.

CHACE: This drug-doping business was very, very profitable. There's all the money from winning the tour, then the fame that goes with that. Lance Armstrong wrote a best-selling book. He gives inspirational speaking gigs. He racks up tons of lucrative endorsements - Nike, Oakley, the biggest brands in the world. And all the riders on the winning team benefit from this kind of money and attention. Lance Armstrong basically introduced professional cycling to America through these successive wins in the Tour de France. That is a pretty big coup. The amazing thing is the doping went on for so long, and so few people said anything about it. It's a huge operation as the documents lay it out. Think of all the people who had to stay silent in order to keep it going, right down to the bus driver of the tour bus. Here's Coyle.

COYLE: At one point, they did a transfusion on the team bus. They faked. During the 2004 tour, they had the bus driver on a road, on a mountain road fake an engine problem. And the buses come with a sort of dark glass windows and curtains they can draw over the windows for privacy. And they simply had the riders lay down on the couches inside the bus, and the bags were taped to the glass, and they received their transfusions.

CHACE: Did they have to bribe the bus driver? Like, it just seems like an incredible amount of people would have to be trusted to keep a secret.

COYLE: The culture of cycling, you know, these guys didn't invent this culture. The culture of cycling existed before them, and the culture of people who worked for cycling teams and who knew how to keep their mouths shut goes way back.

CHACE: The word that is used for the culture of silence in professional cycling comes from maybe the most famous undercover business of all time, the Italian mafia. And there is a word for code of silence in Italian. And when Tyler Hamilton explains why no one spoke up for so long, that's the word he uses.

HAMILTON: It's hard to stand up to the Omerta. I mean, there's a lot of people out there who don't like me. And the only way back in is to stick with the Omerta, the code of silence.

CHACE: The Omerta, the code of silence, was so strong in professional cycling that if anyone was caught, said anything, they would be blacklisted. No one would work with them again. And this happened over and over. Years go by. Very few people speak up. Anyone who's caught doping usually says, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. It was just me. I don't know anything about anybody else. Until finally, someone gets caught and breaks down and spills everything.

And then someone else sees that, and they talk, and then someone else talks. And one by one, the wall of silence starts to tumble down. That's what happened two years ago, to the point where almost all of the key members of the U.S. Postal team in all the years they won the tour, they've admitted to an organized doping program, all except for one very important person, Lance Armstrong. We called up one of Lance Armstrong's lawyers, Bob Luskin, and we asked him to respond to the USADA report and to Tyler Hamilton's story. He says Lance Armstrong was no more a CEO of the Postal team that LeBron James is the Miami Heat. And as for the USADA report...

BOB LUSKIN: It's self-serving in the sense that USADA had staked out a public position before it had accumulated its evidence, and it was self-serving in the sense that that report, which is by no means a neutral or dispassionate document - it's an advocacy piece - was intended to support a public position USADA had taken before the evidence was out.

CHACE: Because of the USADA report, Lance Armstrong has been stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles. And the riders who came in second and third, they may be stripped also. It's as though nobody won the Tour de France for years because doping was that widespread. The question now seems to be, is the doping business out of business? Professional cycling, like a lot of industries - banking, oil drilling, pharmaceuticals - it's a race between the regulators and the regulated. It's this battle. In the case of cycling, people still may be doping at the highest level, and the drug testers, the regulators, haven't caught up to the latest scheme. Or maybe doping is really going away. I will say this much from Coyle, of course. The guy who won this big climb in the last year in the Tour de France, if he'd been racing 10 years ago, he would've finished 40th. Last year, he won, and he was tired the next day.

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KESTENBAUM: That episode, reported by Zoe Chace, originally aired in 2012. Lance Armstrong never returned to professional cycling. And today, there are no winners listed in the record books for those years of the Tour de France. If you're looking for another show to try, check out the NPR One app. Every Thursday this month, you can hear episodes of Pop Culture Happy Hour a day early, exclusively on NPR One. PLANET MONEY is there, too, but not a day early. We don't finish it a day early. You can also hear stories from NPR and your local station. Big thanks to Mike Pesca and Tom Goldman for help with this episode. It was originally produced by Jess Jiang. Today's version was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. I'm David Kestenbaum. Thanks for listening.

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