The story of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace is far from complete. Tonight, 60 Minutes broadcast a follow-up to Armstrong’s confession to talk show host Oprah Winfrey. In the piece, Scott Pelley interviews Travis Tygart, the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency and long-time Lance Armstrong nemesis.
(Print version of the story here.)
Overall, it’s a good story. Before I make some comments about the interview, I want to make a couple of things clear. One, I am not a huge fan of Lance Armstrong. Never have been. While I’ve always respected the fact that he’s a very strong cyclist — with or without drugs — he’s never been someone I looked up to as an athletic hero. Back in the early 90s, when Armstrong was coming up, I thought he might be a strong one-day racer, and perhaps win some of the shorter stage races, such as Paris-Nice. Despite the fact that the Motorola team was clearly trying to groom him to be a contender in the Grand Tours, I never bought into the idea that Armstrong would win the Tour multiple times. Once or twice, perhaps, if luck was on his side. But never what came to be.
I expected he might have a career much like Frankie Andreu’s, to be honest. Perhaps a slightly better/larger set of palmares, but not much. Armstrong’s tactical sense at that stage of his career was seriously lacking. He had one basic tactic. Attack, attack, attack. Beat the field to a pulp and then attack again and leave them for dead. It worked on occasion. But eventually other teams figured him out. Which is, I suspect, why the best he could do in the Olympics was the bronze from the Sydney games that he’s now been stripped of.
While I expected Amstrong’s career arc to be much like Frankie’s, I have to tell you, I never had any desire to meet or hang out with the man. On the other hand, Frankie used to show up at my club’s training races when he had a break from his European schedule, and he was always friendly to and supportive of all the cyclists who participated. He is someone I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a beer with, and is one of the nicest people you will ever meet within American cycling circles.
So, having said that, I found Pelley’s interview credible and pretty damning of Lance Armstrong. Still, he left a couple of questions on the table that he should have asked. First, on the subject of whether Armstrong was clean during the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France.
Again, to inject my personal opinion for a moment. Because I don’t think leopards can change their spots, given that Armstrong cheated during his seven Tour wins, my own feeling is that he cheated during 2009 and 2010. But I don’t have any actual evidence to back up that assertion, other than my own hunch.
Consider the following exchange:
Scott Pelley: Armstrong admitted in the interview to doping throughout his seven Tour de France victories. He tried to make a comeback in 2009. He admitted the first seven, but those last two races in ’09 and 2010 he said he did not dope, he was racing clean.
Travis Tygart: Just contrary to the evidence. The evidence is clear. His blood tests in 2009, 2010, expert reports based on the variation of his blood values from those tests, one to a million chance that it was due to something other than doping.
Scott Pelley: You have to wonder why if he admits to doping in the first seven Tour de France races, why he would proclaim his innocence in 2009 and 2010.
Travis Tygart: I think it stops the criminal conspiracy and protects him and the others that helped him pull off this scheme from potential criminal prosecution if that was in fact true.
Scott Pelley: How does that help him in that way?
Travis Tygart: There’s a five-year statute on a fraud criminal charge. So the five years today would have been expired. However, if the last point of his doping as we alleged and proved in our reasoned decision was in 2010, then the statute has not yet expired and he potentially could be charged with a criminal violation for conspiracy to defraud.
While Pelley follows up to a certain extent, this sample contains references to both questions that I think he should have asked Tygart.
One: Assuming what you say is true, that there is a million-to-one chance that Armstrong competed cleanly during the 2009 and 2010 Tours, why wasn’t an anti-doping case brought against him at that time?
Why should Pelley ask such a question? To explore what USADA knew at the time. If they did have that strong a case, why wasn’t it brought? Or is this based on evidence that was in the UCI’s hands? And if so, what reason would the UCI have for not pursuing the case? And also, is this the opinion of one expert, or were all the experts who reviewed Armstrong’s data from that time period that certain about the meaning of his numbers?
This was a chance to delve a bit more deeply into the science of the biological passport and how the passport works. Scott Pelley should have gone further.
Two: Tygart referred more than once to Armstrong defrauding “millions of people.” Exactly who — besides the sponsors of his teams — did he defraud? Is Tygart implying that donations made to the Livestrong charity were based on fraud? If so, that would make the case against Floyd Landis over donations to the Floyd Fairness Fund look like a small-time hoodwinking. If that’s the case, perhaps there’s a criminal element to the case. But question for the legal eagles out there, would Armstrong’s hoodwinking of sponsors be a criminal matter or a civil matter. Presumably the sponsors should perform due diligence before committing a large sum of sponsorship money. If they got suckered, is that a criminal matter, or were they — like the old saying goes — fools soon parted from their money?
For every time that Tygart made a reference to fraud, Pelley didn’t challenge him on what he meant.
Now, having raised those questions, I’m not trying to suggest that Armstrong isn’t guilty of cheating. Clearly, he is. And I think it’s a reasonable conclusion to suspect that he cheated in 2009 and 2010. Tygart’s explanation of the fraud angle may well explain why Armstrong isn’t admitting to any wrongdoing during his comeback. (And you do have to wonder how a guy who missed three full years of competition could come back and claim third at the Tour.)
Of course, there is a slim chance that Lance Armstrong is telling the truth about 2009 and 2010, and that the reason no case was brought against him was that the data just wasn’t convincing enough for the requisite number of experts to sign off and refer the case (and if I recall correctly, they only see a number attached to the data, not a name, so they — theoretically — had no clue it was Armstrong’s data).
The more reasonable explanation, in my mind, is that Lance and his helpers had figured out how to skate close to the edge but not go over, test results-wise.
One other 60 Minutes piece worth taking a look at is this one from 60 Minutes Overtime, where they ask the question, “Did 60 Minutes help create the Lance Armstrong myth?”
Interesting, and unusual, to see a media outlet examining the role they played in spreading the original Lance Armstrong story. Good for them for doing so.