News feature, August 26, 2005
After Wednesday's controversial allegations made by French sports daily L'Equipe against Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour winner has responded on CNN's Larry King Live program. Armstrong chose the highly-rating talkshow to argue, as he has on countless occasions, that he has never doped, the recent allegations are preposterous, and the tests themselves are intrinsically flawed. Les Clarke reports.
Armstrong was particularly surprised and shocked at the comments of Tour organiser Jean Marie LeBlanc, saying "for Jean-Marie to say that was a shock to me, first of all, because I actually spoke to him that very same day for about 30 minutes on the telephone. I called him at his house in Paris and he didn't say any of those things to me."
Armstrong continued by pointing out how all this impacts on him, saying, "But this thing stinks. It's not good for me. And the unfortunate thing is that you potentially dealt with something that you have to face for the rest of your life. And like I said, the protocol wasn't followed and there is no backup sample to confirm what they say is a positive test."
The 33-year-old Texan is obviously not constrained in his comments now he's retired, explaining possibilities why he's been targeted by the French media ever since his first win in 1999, saying, "French cycling is in one of its biggest lulls it has been ever. I don't know, I think it's been 20 or 25 years since they won the Tour de France. And times are tough, you know, and as I was saying earlier to somebody, the day I retired, they wrote a front-page editorial on L'Equipe, and they said at the end of the article - or the end of the editorial - 'never has an athlete's retirement been so welcome.' So..."
But according to Armstrong it isn't a case of the French people not appreciating his talents, more that their press is against him, and was quick to make the statement, "I've had great relations with the French people. If I go to a restaurant or...I lived there for four years. I lived in the South of France for four years. I had great friends there. I think it's a great country, But the style of the media and obviously certain people in the organisation are not up to par." He clearly drew the battle lines - but has always done so after receiving 'le prix citron', an award given by French photographers to the Tour rider considered most uncooperative. He's never endeared himself to these same press corps, but in recent years the general French public have softened their approach to the American while the majority of the French press haven't. This is a serious point of conjecture for Armstrong.
When questioned on his actual defence against the French sports daily's allegations, Armstrong used the relationship between himself and the French media as grounds to blast procedures used in announcing the test results, saying, "No protocol was followed. And then you get a phone call from a newspaper that says we found you to be positive six times for EPO. Well, since when did newspapers start governing sports? When does a newspaper decide they're going to govern and sanction athletes? That's not the way it works." He continued along this vein later in the interview, saying, "Who opened the samples? What protocol was followed? Nothing. It was all thrown out the door. We cannot build a system of faith and trust in an anti-doping fight if we don't have faith in it. There's no way. If I'm an athlete, if I'm active today, which I'm not, thank goodness, I don't trust that system."
Armstrong also pointed to the fact there had been 17 samples taken from him at the 1999 Tour de France and 'only' six were declared positive [a couple more were on the borderline, according to Jacques De Ceaurriz - ed]. According to Armstrong, the remaining negative samples indicate he was not actually using EPO during the entirety of the Tour. He cited this as strong evidence he had never taken the banned substance, and his resolve remained solid throughout questioning on the issue. It was this, and the fact he was tested so often out of competition, that kept Armstrong comfortable throughout the interview.
The recently-retired Armstrong wasn't holding back, commenting on the establishment's role in this affair, "They have set about a protocol and a code that everybody has to live by. And they violated the code several times. They don't have an answer for it. You know, you talk to the head of WADA and he doesn't have an answer. You talk to the head of the French Ministry for Sport, he doesn't have an answer. The lab runs from it. The only person who's sticking by the story is L'Equipe."
Armstrong assumed his 'race face' during the interview, but, unusually, wasn't willing to indicate his intentions in relation to taking legal actions against the parties involved. This is something in contrast to the latter part of his career, where legal suits became a regular feature of life off the bike. Armstrong preferred instead to illustrate the flaws in the process which led to these recent allegations as he saw it - flaws in the test itself and in the handling methods of the samples and the period of time involved. His edgy performance continued when asked what may happen in terms of retrospective punishment, replying with, "Listen...somebody violated all the rules of drug testing here. There's no way that I could be suspended or stripped. You have to have a confirmation sample, and we don't have that. And that's...you know, I wish we did. I really wish we did."
But when asked whether he would have been clean if protocols had been followed more closely, Armstrong went in on the defensive, stating adamantly, "When I peed in that bottle, there wasn't EPO in it. No way" before the interview changed direction - the fight against cancer and his ride with President George W Bush. This was just before King took calls from viewers, giving Armstrong time to recompose before the interview began again. When they returned to the subject of L'Equipe's article and the fact people may really believe the claims, Armstrong had regained his calm demeanour, saying, "Well, I certainly hope not. I mean, all I can do is come on this stage and tell my story, and be open and honest. I've always done that. And if there's a following over the years, that's what they follow. They like the person that was open and honest and shared his story and lived for other things other than the bike. And that's not going to change."
And at the end of the day, Armstrong sees these latest accusations as having little meaning, saying, "I'm taking this one a little easier than some of the allegations over the years, because I am now retired. So, I don't have to worry about going back to France. I don't have to worry about going over there and racing again and dealing with these people. I don't have to worry about giving a urine sample that will be manipulated anymore. That stuff is done for me. So in that sense, I'm relieved."
Whether this relief is based on guilt or innocence, it's difficult to tell, but one thing's for certain - if claims Armstrong will enter politics are correct, the media training from his years in cycling will serve him very well.
Cyclingnews coverage of the L'Equipe allegations
June 27, 2006 - Carmichael defends Armstrong, Armstrong answers L'Equipe & LeMond
June 26, 2006 - LeMond: "Armstrong threatened my life"
June 19, 2006 - Armstrong calls for Pound's exit
June 18, 2006 - Lance Armstrong's open letter against Dick Pound
June 4, 2006 - UCI hits back at WADA
June 3, 2006 - WADA slams the Vrijman report
June 2, 2006 - L'Equipe stands by its story, UCI supports Vrijman's findings
June 1, 2006 - UCI, WADA and Armstrong react to Vrijman's report
May 31, 2006 - UCI lawyer asks for Armstrong's name to be cleared
May 14, 2006 - Two more weeks for Armstrong investigation
Click here for full coverage of the L'Equipe allegations.