After beatiing cancer and winning the Tour de France seven times, Lance Armstrong is vowing to fight one more battle. In the face of persistent allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs, Lance says he's had enough - and over the coming months he will confront his shadowy accusers in courtrooms and legal proceedings in the U.S., England, and France. W
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ON SEPTEMBER 5, seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong made a remarkable announcement: He said that he was thinking of ending his retirement, at that point a mere six weeks old, and rejoining his Discovery Channel team for a run at another title. Although Armstrong, 34, had previously said “only an absolute miracle” would get him to race again, his rationale for a return in 2006, as published in the Austin American-Statesman, was loud and clear: “I’m thinking it’s the best way to piss [the French] off.”
David WalshDavid Walsh, co-author of L.A. Confidentiel and Lance Armstrong’s chief antagonist, at home outside Cambridge, England.
Armstrong’s motivation for wanting to anger the French was equally clear: It would be payback for the publication, on August 23, of a controversial story in L’Équipe, a Paris-based sports daily. Under the headline “Le Mensonge Armstrong” (“The Armstrong Lie”), investigative journalist Damien Ressiot, 41, alleged that he had proof that Armstrong had used a banned performance-enhancing drug during his first Tour victory, in 1999. “The facts are indisputable,” he wrote.
L’Équipe‘s proof, Ressiot reported, had been obtained by comparing the anonymous results of urine testing conducted by France’s top anti-drug lab, the Laboratoire National de Dépistage du Dopage (LNDD), with identifying numbers from six separate doping control reports naming Armstrong—one of which could be identified as having come from Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), pro cycling’s Aigle, Switzerland–based governing body, which sanctions races, licenses riders, and runs its own anti-doping procedures. The doping lab had evaluated the urine samples, taken from Tour riders in 1999 by the UCI and frozen for five years, in the course of a 2004–05 laboratory research project to refine a new testing method. The tests, according to the L’Équipe article, showed that some of the urine samples contained traces of erythropoetin (EPO), a red-blood-cell booster first used in the late eighties to increase endurance. Six of the samples that tested positive, Ressiot charged, were Armstrong’s.
No official from the LNDD or any other anti-doping body had identified Armstrong; the research was not part of any enforcement protocol. Consistent with standard procedure, the lab had no knowledge of whose samples it was testing, and the samples were identified only by numbers. Ressiot claimed that he had the six doping control records—including the UCI file—that linked Armstrong to the identifying numbers on the samples, and that the LNDD had used the same numbers to identify the positive samples from the LNDD test. An unnamed source or sources provided Ressiot with the evidence he used to make the link.
Ressiot’s talent for collecting this type of information has prompted a separate investigation of his methods: On October 13, French authorities announced they were looking into his use of confidential police interviews in an April 9, 2004, L’Équipe story about alleged doping by members of the French Cofidis cycling team. But he makes no apologies about his reporting style, and in an interview with Bicycling magazine, he has characterized his Armstrong story as “black-and-white evidence.”
The story went off like a bomb. Some observers said the charge was a grave one and that the case for Armstrong’s guilt was compelling. Others raised a flurry of criticism attacking the ethics and legality of leaking confidential lab results, the motives of the journalists and sources involved, and the accuracy of the test in question. As happens whenever Armstrong is accused of anything, many of the reactions on both sides were characterized by greater certainty than the available evidence seemed to warrant. Jean-Marie Leblanc, the Paris-based director of the Tour, called the story “meticulous,” adding later that “we were all fooled” by Armstrong’s declarations that he had raced clean. Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an independent Montreal-based operation established by the International Olympic Committee to set testing policies for most of the world’s sports federations, was more circumspect. He would not commit to a direct accusation against Armstrong but declared that the L’Équipe report showed there was “a very high probability of performance-enhancing-drug activity” at the 1999 Tour.
In Armstrong’s defense, Gerard Bisceglia, CEO of USA Cycling, American cycling’s Colorado Springs, Colorado–based governing body, called the paper’s story “preposterous,” adding that “this kind of years-ago testing of a single sample with new technology is completely without credibility.”
Bisceglia’s reference to “a single sample” pointed to a crucial fact: It’s an ironclad rule of current anti-doping regimens under the auspices of WADA that a sanction against an athlete is allowable only when two samples from a single urine or blood specimen—known as A and B samples—both confirm a result. But the test in question had been conducted entirely with B samples; the A samples from the 1999 Tour had long since been destroyed.
In fact, the lab’s real purpose wasn’t to determine evidence of doping in a past event but to refine the test itself. The standard EPO urine test used today works via electrophoresis, which produces a kind of electrically charged photograph that distinguishes between isoforms—functionally similar proteins that have different genetic codes. On the snapshot, the body’s naturally occurring EPO looks different from artificial EPO. To test positive for doping, at least 80 percent of the isoforms have to show markers that appear consistent with manufactured EPO, and the sample must satisfy visual and mathematical analysis. It was hoped that a refined test could provide a qualitative positive—one that would be based not on a threshold but on how, exactly, manufactured EPO isoforms look.
The standard test, first developed in 2000 by LNDD, is by no means lock-tight, since its subjective nature raises the possibility of false positives. In fact, two weeks before the L’Équipe story was published, elite triathlete Rutger Beke got a 2004 positive EPO reading thrown out on appeal by the Flemish Disciplinary Commission when he demonstrated hat he had naturally produced proteins that could trigger a positive result.
L’Équipe‘s story also raised questions about athletes’ right to be tested and judged by the rules, not by a newspaper sting that wouldn’t hold up under the standards of the official anti-doping protocol. Another criticism of the exposé was that Armstrong was the only cyclist to be named, despite evidence of other riders testing positive. (Two and a half weeks after the L’Équipe story broke, the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche published a story naming three other cyclists whose samples allegedly tested positive during the LNDD research project.)
The UCI, which has jurisdiction in the matter because it was in charge of testing at that time, opened an investigation, but its attention quickly diverted from the doping question to the sources of the leaked lab report and Armstrong’s individual doping control forms. Their actions led to an international war of words between then UCI president Hein Verbruggen and WADA’s Pound over each agency’s role in the scandal.
“Pound loses his mind when the press gets near,” said Verbruggen, responding to Pound’s claim that Verbruggen himself was the source of the leak. To sort the matter out, on October 6 the UCI announced that it had hired a new independent investigator, Emile Vrijman, a Dutch lawyer and former head of Holland’s anti-doping agency, to look into the test results and the leaks surrounding the L’Équipe affair.
Ultimately, the most important reaction came from Armstrong himself. The night before the story broke, he published a denial on his Web site, LanceArmstrong.com. “I will simply re-state what I have said many times,” he wrote. “I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs.” He subsequently told the Associated Press, “There’s a setup here. . . . I absolutely do not trust that laboratory.” On August 25, he appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live and speculated that the only way he could have tested positive was if his urine sample had been tampered with. “What was manipulated was the urine,” he told King and co-host Bob Costas. “What was put in the urine? Who was there?”
In the end, Armstrong withdrew his threat to return to racing. During a September 15 conference call with the media from Austin, he ruled out a return to competition. “There is no way I would get a fair shake,” he declared, “either on the roadside, in the doping control, or in the lab, or in the hotel, or in the food.”
During the Larry King Live interview, Costas asked Armstrong whether he was considering a lawsuit against either L’Équipe or its sources. He had thought about it, Armstrong said, but had decided against it. “At the end of the day, when you sue somebody, it just keeps a bad story alive forever,” he argued. “It gives them the opportunity to say, ‘Oh, we found this. Oh, we did that.’ It gives them more credit than they deserve.”
As the noise from all sides died down to a low yet consistent rumble, cycling fans around the world were left wondering what had happened. Damien Ressiot’s L’Équipe story, it seemed, produced more questions than answers.
Meanwhile, however, with little scrutiny from the press or the public, a legal drama is unfolding that could finally provide a definitive answer to the question that has dogged Armstrong for seven years: Did he rely on doping to win the Tour de France—or has he been the victim of a callous and vicious witch hunt?
LANCE ARMSTRONG MAY have decided, at least for now, to shrug off the L’É;quipe exposé;, just as he’s dismissed many journalistic skirmishes in the past. Yet over the past year and a half he has taken a much more aggressive stance against his accusers. While it may be true that a lawsuit “keeps a bad story alive forever,” the former cyclist is nonetheless currently involved in four separate cases in France, England, and the U.S., three of which he initiated. Those three target, directly or indirectly, the reporting of a journalist who, more than any other, has earned Armstrong’s wrath for questioning his record of clean racing: David Walsh, the 50-year-old Irish-born chief sportswriter for The Sunday Times of London and co-author, with French sportswriter Pierre Ballester, of a 372-page French-language book, L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong, which was published by É;ditions de La Martiniè;re three weeks before the 2004 Tour de France. The book marshaled interviews and supposition to make a circumstantial case that Armstrong had taken performance-enhancing drugs, including EPO and steroids, and covered it up. As the author himself acknowledged, the book offered no conclusive proof to back up its charges.
Walsh and Armstrong had tangled before. In July 2002, Armstrong told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, “Walsh is the worst journalist I know. There are journalists who are willing to lie, to threaten people, and to steal in order to catch me out. Ethics, standards, values, accuracy: these are of no interest to people like them.” When L.A. Confidentiel was released, the Tour champ denounced it as the lowest sort of tabloid garbage.
On September 10, 2004, Armstrong filed a $2.4 million defamation suit in France against the Paris-based publisher, La Martiniè;re, and against Walsh, Ballester, and two of their sources, former Motorola rider Stephen Swart and former Postal soigneur (team assistant) Emma O’Reilly. A separate suit—later consolidated, on December 9, 2004, into a single trial with the La Martiniè;re case—named the French newsmagazine L’Express, which printed a 6,300-word excerpt on June 14, 2004, just prior to the book’s publication. In the court filings with Le Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris, Armstrong identified 18 specific examples of defamation in the book L.A. Confidentiel. A hearing on December 1 will determine a court date for the trial, which could begin as early as spring 2006.
On June 15, 2004, three months before the French charges were filed, Armstrong had brought a libel suit in London’s civil court, the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, against Walsh’s employer over an article that The Sunday Times had printed about the book that week. Despite considerable precautions by the paper—the piece was written by deputy sports editor Alan English, not by Walsh, and it contained only a few brief quotations from the book itself—Armstrong named The Sunday Times, English, and Walsh as defendants in a suit seeking damages for libel and an injunction to restrain the defendants from restating the alleged libels. Originally scheduled for a November 6, 2005, trial date, the case has since been postponed until early spring 2006.
The original complaint in the London court and Armstrong’s solicitors’ subsequent February 18, 2005, reply to the defense statements give a strong indication of the case that Armstrong’s camp intends to present against Walsh. His solicitors completely deny entire scenes and parts of others recounted in L.A. Confidentiel and alluded to in The Sunday Times story. In one passage, Walsh and Ballester write that Armstrong, Stephen Swart, and Frankie Andreu (both teammates of Armstrong’s when he rode for Motorola, before developing testicular cancer in 1996) allegedly discussed starting a doping program to help the team; in another, they report that Irish-born O’Reilly, 34, who acted as Armstrong’s chief masseuse from 1998 to 2000, says she delivered an unidentified bottle of pills to him in May 1999; and in a third passage, they report that O’Reilly told Walsh that the team doctor had backdated a prescription for saddle-sore cream to explain how Armstrong tested positive for traces of a steroid on the 1999 Tour’s second day.
On September 14, 2004, four days after filing his defamation suit in France, Armstrong and Tailwind Sports, which partially owned the U.S. Postal Service team and now partially owns the Discovery Channel team, filed a lawsuit in Dallas County District Court against SCA Promotions, a Dallas-based company that provides risk coverage for promotional contests. The suit was brought to compel arbitration over SCA’s failure to pay Armstrong a $5 million bonus for winning a record sixth Tour de France in 2004. According to John Bandy, SCA’s house counsel, the company has so far declined to pay because president Bob Hamman said he wanted to investigate the claims made in L.A. Confidentiel.
Armstrong’s attorneys countered that Lance’s record of negative drug tests during the 2004 Tour was all the verification SCA needed to see. That case is to be decided in closed arbitration, conducted by three independent arbitrators picked by SCA and Armstrong. Hearings are scheduled to begin on December 12, with a ruling expected in late January 2006.
In the fourth legal dispute that includes doping allegations, Armstrong is the defendant in a civil case scheduled for trial as early as December 5 in Travis County District Court in Austin. The original suit was filed on January 5, 2005, by Mike Anderson—Armstrong’s personal assistant and mechanic from December 2002 until Armstrong fired him on November 16, 2004. Anderson alleges that Armstrong defamed him when Armstrong’s agent, Bill Stapleton, told the Austin American-Statesman on December 13, 2004, that “we were threatened with a half-million-dollar lawsuit,” and he states in his complaint that this accusation came after he refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement when he was fired. (Anderson’s defamation claim in reaction to Stapleton’s comments has since been dismissed.) Then, in a subsequent court filing, on March 31, 2005, Anderson added a controversial new claim: that he had found a box of what he believed were steroids in Armstrong’s Girona, Spain, apartment in early 2004, and that this incident had led to his dismissal. On August 4, 2005, Anderson introduced yet another charge awaiting a hearing: that Armstrong didn’t compensate him justly for the scope of his job duties.
That’s a lot of legal noise coming up in the next six months—but which of these cases could answer the crucial question of whether Armstrong or Walsh played fair or not? And what are the stakes for the parties involved?
For Armstrong, the libel trial in England probably offers his best shot at vindication. Thanks to the nuances of English libel law, he stands a better chance of winning there than he does in France, where libel law more closely resembles that of the U.S.
“Libel law in the United Kingdom is far more favorable to the plaintiff than in the United States,” says Michael Overing, a media lawyer who teaches Internet and communication law as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California. “The right to free speech is more limited, and the burden of proof rests on the defendant.”
On July 29, The Sunday Times won a pre-trial appeal from the Court of Appeal to restore the use of a “qualified privilege” defense, which had initially been disallowed. Qualified privilege means that the paper will argue that it acted responsibly in publishing the story—that it was only asking reasonable questions that were in the public interest. In more recent activity, according to Gillian Phillips, a solicitor for The Sunday Times, the paper is weighing the benefits of asking the court to allow the new allegations published in the L’É;quipe story to be introduced as evidence.
If the case does go to trial next year, the financial stakes will be high. Although English law generally limits damages in libel suits to $350,000, the loser pays all of the winner’s legal costs. According to Phillips, the legal expenses “could exceed £1 million [$1.75 million] each.”
SO FAR IN THE WAR of public opinion, most Americans side with Armstrong, putting little faith in the charges made by the likes of Ressiot and Walsh. In a USA Today online poll conducted after the L’Ée;quipe story broke, 72 percent of the more than 38,000 respondents agreed with Armstrong’s statement that he was the victim of a journalistic hit.
Whatever Walsh is, he’s no Fleet Street hack. For nine years, he’s written for The Sunday Times, a respected paper with a circulation of 1.3 million. He’s won three British Press Awards—a prominent award in British newspaper journalism—for Sports Writer of the Year, most recently in 2004 for a story about the Irish jockey Kieran Fallon.
For Walsh, the stakes couldn’t be higher in his looming legal battles with Armstrong. His legal expenses are being covered by the Times and La Martinièe;re, and it’s highly unlikely that he’ll pay any damages should he lose the English or French cases. But if his defense fails, he’ll no longer be David Walsh, award-winning sportswriter, but David Walsh, convicted libeler. “I think if I lost, a lot of people would decide I mustn’t have got the story right,” Walsh says. “The Sunday Times has been incredibly supportive of me, and I don’t imagine that would change—I hope it wouldn’t.”
To the extent that most Americans even know who Walsh is, their impressions are formed mostly through Armstrong’s vehement opinions. “I just hate the guy,” he told writer Daniel Coyle in the 2005 book Lance Armstrong’s War, adding that Walsh is a “fucking little troll.”
For his part, Walsh declines to respond to Armstrong’s bitter personal criticism in kind, and he displays no outward signs of animus toward the Tour champion. His cause, he says, is to root out corruption in cycling, not to destroy Armstrong.
According to Walsh, his pursuit of Armstrong evolved from his experience covering the high-stakes cat-and-mouse game between cheating athletes and anti-doping agencies beginning in the late eighties. After Irish swimmer Michelle Smith won three gold medals at the Atlanta Olympic Games, in 1996, Walsh wrote a Sunday Times column questioning her achievements. His argument, like the one later used in L.A. Confidentiel, was based largely on circumstantial evidence, and in Smith’s case Walsh was vindicated. During the preceding decade, Walsh pointed out, Smith had never been a top competitor; her physique had grown more muscular in a brief period of time; and she was coached by her future husband, former discus thrower Erik de Bruin, a Dutchman who had served a ban from competition for elevated testosterone levels. Even though Smith had never tested positive, Walsh refused to believe she was clean.
“That she would become a woman who could win three gold medals was just bizarre,” says Walsh.
In 1998, Smith did test positive: Evidence of androstenedione, a testosterone booster that supposedly helps increase lean muscle mass, was found in a urine sample, and, just as significant, she was busted for spiking the sample with alcohol. After being banned from competition for four years, she retired.
Walsh says he started reporting on cycling in 1980, mostly as an enthusiastic fan. Two years later, Irish rider Sean Kelly began his string of winning four green jerseys as one of the Tour’s best sprinters of the eighties. Walsh was frustrated that Kelly’s supreme athletic accomplishments were largely being ignored in Ireland. “People didn’t understand cycling, and the journalists weren’t bothering to go out and explain it,” he says. “So I took Kelly on almost as part of my mission in life, to explain to people what a great athlete he was.” In a 1994 book, Inside the Tour de France, Walsh included a sympathetic portrait of a young phenom from Texas named Lance Armstrong.
Then, in 1998, just before the Tour started with a historic visit to Ireland, Festina soigneur Willy Voet was stopped by French customs police on a country road near the France-Belgium border. Among other drugs in his car were 234 doses of EPO. Voet and team director Bruno Roussel admitted to running a doping program for the team. Star Festina riders Alex Zülle and Richard Virenque confessed to drug use and served eight- and nine-month suspensions, respectively. The magnitude of the bust led to a disastrous 1998 Tour with further police raids on teams during the race and sit-down strikes by the racers—a severe blow to cycling’s credibility.
But the ’98 Tour was also a watershed in the fight against doping. The scandal led to the creation of WADA and the beginning of standardized anti-doping rules followed by various countries, resulting in more sophisticated tests—the EPO urine test created in 2000 was first used in cycling at the 2001 Tour—and harsher penalties. The 1999 Tour, said race director Jean-Marie Leblanc at the time, would be a Tour of “renewal.” Walsh says he went to see if that would prove true.
“WHOEVER WENT BACK to the Tour after 1998 had to decide whether it was the same drug-filled race it had been the previous year, or a lesser drug-filled race,” Walsh recalls. “If you didn’t ask that, you were just being willfully dishonest.” He says his approach to the race was to tell himself, “Never again; I’m not going to believe it’s changed unless I have reason to believe.” What he saw in 1999, he says, didn’t give him reason for hope.
Walsh recalls that he grew suspicious of the peloton’s pace, which simply seemed too fast. At an average speed of 25.03 miles per hour, 1999 was the fastest Tour to date, 0.19 miles per hour faster than the record set at the controversial ’98 Tour. “How can clean racers ride faster than those known to be on dope?” Walsh remembers thinking.
And as the race wound through France, Walsh says, he decided to keep tabs on Armstrong. During Stage 1, his drug test showed evidence of a banned steroid, triamcinolone. Armstrong subsequently produced a doctor’s prescription for a topical steroid cream, Cemalyt, which he said he had used to treat a saddle sore, and the matter was dropped.
Armstrong’s cancer comeback and his Tour victory that year were widely celebrated as an inspiring triumph, but Walsh says he remained wary.
“Cycling returned in 1999 with a new champion, and the new champion was heralded as a great savior of the sport, the guy who showed you that cycling was now clean,” Walsh recalls. “And I said, Yeah, fine, but we need to look at this, need to investigate it, need to satisfy ourselves that it is what they say it is. You need to make sure that we’re no longer glorifying a false god.”
In 2000, as Armstrong and the U.S. Postal team notched their second consecutive Tour win, Walsh continued to investigate. On July 8, 2001, the second day of that year’s Tour, The Sunday Times published a story by Walsh titled “Saddled with Suspicion.” It revealed that Armstrong had been working with a controversial Italian sports physician named Michele Ferrari. Ferrari had been investigated for doping offenses before, but never prosecuted. In 2001, the public prosecutor in Ferrara, Italy, named Ferrari in a recommended trial with others suspected of helping more than 400 athletes dope between 1992 and 1998. But in the end, Ferrari was never put on trial. By the time Walsh began his research, however, Ferrari was again under investigation, this time by the Italian criminal court in Bologna for the newly created charge of sporting fraud and medical malpractice.
Armstrong has always firmly rejected the idea that his relationship with Ferrari established guilt by association. In 2001, when asked about Ferrari, Armstrong issued a press release stating that “[Ferrari’s] primary role has always been limited. Since Chris [Carmichael, Armstrong’s Colorado Springs–based coach] cannot be in Europe on an ongoing basis, Michele does my physiological testing and provides Chris with that data on a regular basis.”
In his 2003 book Every Second Counts, Armstrong further characterizes his dealings with Ferrari: “He was one of the best minds in cycling, and sometimes I consulted him.”
In October 2004, Ferrari was convicted in the Bologna case for unlawful distribution of medicines—i.e., writing too many prescriptions—and sporting fraud. After the decision, Armstrong said he had severed his professional relationship with him.
As a result of the Festina bust in 1998, the nature of doping in the cycling world changed. Instead of systematic drug programs set up by teams, it was now up to individual riders to start and manage their own personal programs and maintain their silence.
“I only know about me,” said Britain’s 2003 time-trial world champion, David Millar, in The Guardian of London in July 2004, before he was officially banned for using EPO. “I didn’t ask questions of other guys [on the Cofidis team].”
Even so, anti-doping authorities have had some success since the Festina scandal, but it seems that the majority of busts have been the result of police investigations, not drug testing. Millar was caught when police found traces of EPO in syringes in his Biarritz, France, apartment. He later admitted that, even though he had tested negative, he’d won his world championship while on EPO.
In October 2000, France 3 television aired a report showing a doctor for Armstrong’s then U.S. Postal Service team allegedly discarding medical waste—including packaging for Actovegin, a suspected blood-oxygen booster—into a roadside dumpster. In L.A. Confidentiel, Walsh treats the incident as credible.
The French police opened an investigation based on the France 3 allegations but ended it 21 months later for lack of conclusive evidence. In November 2002, after the French investigation closed, Walsh contacted Ballester to discuss collaborating on what would become L.A. Confidentiel. By that time, Ballester says, he had left his job as a sportswriter for L’Équipe, disgusted by what he saw as cycling’s unwillingness to change its doping culture. He was working as a freelance editor when he agreed to join Walsh.
“As journalists, we have the mission to say something else,” says Ballester. “The objective of L.A. Confidentiel is showing the other part of Armstrong. Not only the clear side, but the dark side, because it’s part of the truth. It’s about honesty.”
FROM JANUARY 2003 to May 2004, Walsh and Ballester tracked down nearly every piece of information that could possibly yield a connection between Armstrong and the topic of doping. They spoke with former teammates, team directors, and team doctors. They also interviewed sports physiologists to learn about how performance-enhancing drugs work and spoke with confessed dopers, like France’s Jerome Chiotti, to find out how drugs are used by cyclists.
Walsh says that he and Ballester interviewed more than 55 people in the course of researching the book. “It should have been 255,” admits Walsh, “but we didn’t have time. We both still had full-time jobs.”
The end result is a sprawling collection of interviews, statistics, timelines, and newspaper accounts, but no proof against Armstrong. Yet Walsh and Ballester say that any definitive standard of proof was impossible to meet. Sources, they claim, refused to come forward, often citing their fear that Armstrong would retaliate and damage their careers and reputations. “People refused out of what could happen to them,” claims Ballester.
Still, setting aside those allegations in the book that can be dismissed as purely speculative—such as Walsh and Ballester’s tenuous attempt to raise the possibility that Armstrong developed cancer because of his alleged doping program—the authors offer several charges that stand out. One is an anecdote recounted by New Zealander Stephen Swart, in which he, Armstrong, Frankie Andreu, and others allegedly discussed, in the spring of 1995, starting a doping program for the Motorola team that would include the use of EPO. According to the book, Swart said, “Lance fully participated in the discussion and his opinion was to go with it.”
In another significant allegation, Walsh and Ballester describe a scene that allegedly took place in an Indianapolis hospital room in October 1996. They write that a number of Armstrong’s friends and acquaintances were visiting him after the surgery to remove his cancer: Frankie Andreu and his future wife, Betsy; Chris Carmichael and his wife, Paige; Armstrong’s girlfriend Lisa Shiels; and Stéphanie McIlvain, a representative from Armstrong’s sunglasses sponsor, Oakley. The authors allege that Armstrong, in a conversation with his doctors that took place in the room, admitted that he had used EPO and human growth hormone—a natural hormone that, when taken in sufficient doses, can stimulate lean muscle growth and aid in recovery.
Other serious allegations come from O’Reilly, the Postal team’s head soigneur in 1999 and 2000, who had kept a diary of her time with the team. When Outside reached her by phone, O’Reilly declined to comment on this story, but in L.A. Confidentiel she is quoted as saying that in May 1999 she was given a box of unlabeled pills by Johan Bruyneel, Postal’s team director, and asked to drive across the border of Spain and France and deliver them to Armstrong in a McDonald’s parking lot. She also claimed in the book that she helped Armstrong apply makeup to conceal arm bruises caused by syringes, and she talks in the book of discarding syringes and other medical waste on the team’s behalf. O’Reilly alleges she was party to the forging of a backdated medical certificate that explained Armstrong’s positive urine test for steroids, and she also alleges that, after that incident, Armstrong told her, “Emma, now you know enough to bring me down.”
L.A. Confidentiel also provides an account of an August 2001 telephone conversation between Armstrong and three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, who had been publicly critical of Armstrong’s ties to Ferrari. The alleged conversation was recounted by LeMond’s wife, Kathy, who, according to Walsh, wrote down her memory of the exchange immediately after the call.
The book describes how the LeMonds were getting into their car when an agitated Armstrong called Greg to complain about his comments. Kathy says she overheard Armstrong challenge her husband to say that he had never taken EPO during his professional career.
“What makes you say I’ve taken EPO?” Greg replied.
According to the book, Kathy’s memory of Armstrong’s response was “Go on, everyone takes EPO.”
Then the book details the background of Michele Ferrari to make the case that Armstrong’s relationship with him should invite people to entertain suspicions about Armstrong. Walsh quotes the February 2002 testimony of Italian pro cyclist Filippo Simeoni, a client of Ferrari’s, during the criminal court proceedings that led to Ferrari’s conviction in 2004. The book describes Simeoni, an admitted doper, explaining how, in 1996 and 1997, he had taken EPO based on Ferrari’s instructions, and how they later discussed adding testosterone to his program.
On the whole, because Walsh and Ballester’s evidence in the book is circumstantial, no single piece of it has the power of truth. But Walsh believes the sheer volume of suggestive evidence makes it convincing.
“I find it hard to believe a person could go to our book with an open mind about Lance Armstrong,” he says, “and come away still believing in him.”
WHETHER OR NOT READERS believe Armstrong after reading L.A. Confidentiel, the book has problems that would seem to attract litigation. And it hasn’t helped that the book has only been published in French. There’s no English edition of L.A. Confidentiel; to date, according to Walsh, 14 English-language publishers have declined to publish it. The reasons seem to vary: poor marketability due to the hero status of Armstrong in America; outdated charges—some now more than ten years old; and the ever-present threat of lawsuits. (A bootleg English version has circulated for months among bike-racing fans, but it’s a crude translation.)
Walsh says that he and Ballester wanted to give people a full portrait of Armstrong, so they included information that was unrelated to the question of doping. For instance, former teammate Cédric Vasseur of France, a veteran cyclist who raced with the Postal team in the 2000 Tour, complains about never having received his bonus money; Walsh and Ballester allege that Armstrong may have fixed a U.S. race series in 1993 to win a $1 million bonus; and there’s a lengthy section detailing Armstrong’s failed contract with the Cofidis team.
Aside from the book’s broad and meandering focus, at least some of the central allegations have faults as well. In their depiction of the 1996 hospital scene, Walsh and Ballester provide no source for the charge that Armstrong admitted to his doctors that he had used EPO and human growth hormone. The conversation between LeMond and Armstrong was relayed secondhand to Walsh by LeMond’s wife, Kathy, not by Greg himself. (However, when asked by Outside to corroborate the account of this interaction with Armstrong, Greg LeMond asserted, “What my wife said to David was absolutely true.”)
As for O’Reilly, her allegations also seem at least once removed from being proof. Walsh says in the book that she told him she had never personally administered doping products at Postal, nor had she seen Armstrong take any known banned substances. And, the book goes on to say, she never inquired about the nature of the pills she drove across the Spanish-French border in 1999.
It’s also a fact that Walsh has said in the past that he did not pay Emma O’Reilly, when he actually did. Walsh recently admitted in an interview with Outside that he had paid O’Reilly for her story, despite assuring VeloNews in June 2004 that he had not. His explanation for telling this falsehood is that “I felt at the time if I’d said yes, she would have been absolutely screwed.”
Walsh claims that two months after O’Reilly completed the unpaid interview with him in early July 2003, she called to protest that the book would be a success based largely on her interview, while her only reward would be Armstrong’s wrath. (Walsh says he’s made around $55,000 from the book.) According to Walsh, he told Ballester about the situation and then paid O’Reilly approximately $8,850 on September 19, 2003.
“At the time I made what I saw as a moral judgment,” Walsh says. “It was an acknowledgment of what she was going to go through. But the bottom line is: Was she telling the truth? There is zero doubt about that for me.” Still, no matter what rationale Walsh uses to justify this exchange of money, it can be assumed that Armstrong’s lawyers will characterize this as checkbook journalism and aggressively use this revelation to discredit the book.
Given their reliance on a largely circumstantial argument, Walsh and Ballester weaken their case by ignoring the circumstantial evidence in Armstrong’s favor—evidence such as seven years of negative drug tests, both in and out of competition. They fail to cite other arguments that support his clean racing record, including a dominant roster of support riders on the Postal and Discovery teams with one singular goal: to help Armstrong win. Nor do they acknowledge the brilliant race tactics of Johan Bruyneel. During their run, no team came close to their effectiveness.
As for Ballester’s point that people fear Armstrong, it’s notable that Armstrong has never previously sued anyone who has made allegations or raised suspicions about doping.
The circumstantial nature of the book’s allegations haven’t gone unnoticed by others in the press. James Startt, Bicycling’s Paris-based correspondent, says the book offers comments that don’t appear to be supported by the available evidence. “A few times in the book, I felt like [Walsh] inferred things that could be taken differently,” he says. “People were ready to say, ‘That’s it—proof positive,’ but it wasn’t readily clear.”
Walsh himself has admitted that “the book falls short of a ‘smoking gun.’ ” When asked why he and Ballester hadn’t waited for decisive proof before going into print, he says, “To be honest, I didn’t think we were going to get that kind of evidence.” He points out that the 21-month investigation by French police, begun after the 2000 Tour, didn’t turn up definitive evidence, either. “It was always less likely that we would succeed where they failed,” he says.
In the end, the questions surrounding L.A. Confidentiel raise a qualm: If Walsh and Ballester had failed to find definitive evidence of cheating, why the rush to publish just before the 2004 Tour? Was the circumstantial evidence they presented strong enough to justify the damage to Armstrong’s reputation?
Both the book’s strengths and its serious flaws are about to be contested in cycling’s biggest mud fight ever. The legal arena is very different from the journalistic one. For one thing, sources have to talk truthfully or risk perjury. Both sides are facing enormous new risks. If the law goes Walsh’s way, Armstrong may be revealed as the central figure in a multinational, multi-million-dollar scheme to cheat and lie his way to becoming the Tour de France’s grandest champion. But if everything goes Armstrong’s way, his accusers, beyond whatever other penalty they pay, will become the accused in the court of public opinion.
WITH ARMSTRONG’S TRIAL dates and hearings approaching, hints of the tactics that will be deployed are beginning to emerge. It already seems clear that the lawyers lined up against Armstrong are going to subpoena witnesses in an attempt not just to defend existing reporting but to generate new evidence and testimony.
Up until the L’Équipe story was published, The Sunday Times‘ defense strategy was going to likely involve obtaining witness statements in support of Walsh and L.A. Confidentiel from O’Reilly and other sources—used on and off the record—as a way to prove that there were reasonable grounds to suspect Armstrong had doped. But in response to the new French allegations, the paper’s solicitors have begun to reevaluate their strategy. According to Gillian Phillips, the paper’s house solicitor, the L’Équipe story could help the paper win its case by showing that it was acting responsibly. “We don’t have to show he did take drugs,” she asserts, “but that there are a sufficient number of incidents to give rise to this suspicion.”
Whether the Times can enter the L’Équipe allegations into the trial is not a given, and if the UCI’s investigation drags on, the ultimate credibility of the L’Équipe exposé could remain in limbo. “It’s a difficult [strategy], because to a large extent we are frozen at the time of [the Times story’s] publication,” says Phillips.
Court documents from the June 15, 2004, complaint suggest that Armstrong’s solicitors will attack Walsh’s “personal campaign” against Armstrong to insinuate that he has used performance-enhancing drugs without any evidence to support his accusations.
Armstrong’s solicitors also accuse the paper of using the article to promote sales of L.A. Confidentiel and provide The Sunday Times with a scoop without providing adequate time for Armstrong to respond before the story was printed.
The French case against La Martinière differs from the Sunday Times trial because O’Reilly and Swart are also named as defendants. In addition, French libel law is more in line with U.S. law, with its stricter standard for what constitutes libel and the requirement that the plaintiff (Armstrong) and his chief lawyer, Nice-based Donald Manasse, prove that he was defamed.
La Martinière’s defense lawyer, Paris-based Thibault de Montbrial, will try to prove “good faith.” “This is defined as proving in court that the authors made a serious investigation,” he says, “that they granted Mr. Armstrong the right to answer and that, before they went to print, the sum of all the papers, testimony, and documents of any kind would lead them with good faith to believe what they wrote is true, and that they wrote it in a prudent way.”
However, de Montbrial has no interest in attempting to prove Armstrong doped. His job, he says, is only to show that the book and the defendants attached to it are not guilty of defamation.
Meanwhile, SCA’s attorney in Dallas, John Bandy, says he plans to go beyond the allegations in L.A. Confidentiel and investigate anyone who might know anything connecting Armstrong to doping.
SCA had underwritten a policy for Tailwind Sports, the parent company of Armstrong’s team, for back-to-back wins in the 2001 and 2002 Tours, which paid out $1.5 million, and for Armstrong’s fifth win, in 2003, when the insurer paid $3 million. The disputed third payout, for $5 million, covered Armstrong’s bonus for his sixth win.
Through Tailwind Sports, Armstrong sued to push the payment dispute into arbitration, as the policy specified. And although the case is in arbitration—meaning it will be handled outside of a courtroom, with no judge or jury—Texas law still applies, and witnesses could face perjury charges for false testimony. “We will be trying to get at what people really know—at the facts,” Bandy says. “We’ll subpoena sources for the book, but I wouldn’t want to restrict it to people in the book. We may very well depose people who weren’t in the book.”
Though there will be plenty of testimony in the SCA case, don’t expect to hear any of it. Earlier this year, Armstrong’s lawyers obtained a protective order that prohibits those involved from discussing details of the case, possibly even after the verdict.
Greg LeMond and Betsy Andreu have both told Outside that they’ve been subpoenaed in the SCA case and asked to testify in the Sunday Times case. Another source for Walsh’s book who acknowledges that he’s been subpoenaed is Frankie Andreu. It’s more than likely that he’ll be questioned about allegations of any doping programs in place when he rode for Motorola and Postal.
As for calling on Armstrong to testify under oath about whether or not he used performance-enhancing drugs, defense lawyers in the defamation and libel suits doubt it will happen, saying that they’ll probably rely only on Armstrong’s testimony taken in external depositions. John Bandy, of SCA Promotions, says he’s doesn’t know yet whether he will question Armstrong.
KNOWING WHAT’S AT STAKE, there are four possible outcomes to Armstrong’s legal maneuvers: His lawsuits backfire, and, through the trials, perhaps more allegations of doping come forward; Armstrong loses on legal technicalities, and no further allegations come to light; he wins on narrow legal grounds, but new allegations arise in testimony; or, in the last scenario, Armstrong conclusively proves that he was libeled and is totally vindicated, and he can put these suspicions to rest and move on to the next chapter in his life, as a newlywed, a father, and a fundraiser for cancer-research programs.
For Armstrong, his reputation, his earning power, and the future success of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which has raised more than $85 million on behalf of cancer survivors, may hinge on evidence unearthed by these trials. Forbes ranked him as the third-most-powerful athlete in the world in 2005, behind only Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal, with earnings of approximately $28 million a year. Sports Illustrated has estimated that more than $17 million of his earnings come through endorsements, including his post-retirement agreements with Nike, Oakley, and Trek.
Across the Atlantic, David Walsh remains both unrepentant and unruffled, despite the legal peril he’s facing, although he admits to feeling surprised and frustrated by the relatively limited fallout from the L’Équipe allegations in the U.S. “What will it take for Americans to begin to honestly examine Armstrong’s career?” he asks.
For his part, Lance Armstrong will wait to address his main accusers in court. “I have no interest in commenting on the type of journalism practiced by David Walsh and Pierre Ballester,” he told Outside. “I will say that I am looking forward to the upcoming trials, where I am fully confident we will win.”