Jan 22, 2013

Questions Oprah failed to ask Lance Armstrong

On Monday, Jan. 14, Lance Armstrong taped a confession interview with Oprah Winfrey in Austin, Tex. Between the taping and the airing of the interview on Thursday and Friday, there was a lot of speculation as to what he would say; how forthright he was going to be; whom else he would implicate in his confession. Admittedly, over the last year, I’ve been following the issue closely (almost to the point of obsession). What interested me most was what he wouldn’t say; where he would keep quiet; and which questions he would refuse to answer.

Within the first minutes of the interview, it was clear that to the world of cycling as a whole, Armstrong’s confession would be more or less useless. He refused to talk about anyone but himself; meaning neither Pat McQuaid (the current president of the UCI), nor Hein Verbruggen (past president of the UCI for much of Armstrong’s racing career) were going to be implicated. I certainly wasn’t holding my breath, but prior to viewing the first part of the interview, there was hope he would bring down the house, throw them all under the train, and force a top down reconstruction of the UCI – something the sport of cycling desperately needs. None of that happened.*

Unfortunately, in my opinion, Oprah came to the interview ill-equipped, and many times throughout the program, I wanted to see a follow-up; I wanted an issue pressed, but she just moved on.

Here are some excerpts from the interview where I felt Armstrong wasn’t pressed far enough:

OW: When did you first start doping?
LA: … I guess early in my career there was cortisone, and then the EPO generation began.
OW: Began when?
LA: For me?
OW: For you.
LA: Mid nineties.

I guess Oprah wasn’t really interested in how he got into the culture of doping in the first place. Follow up questions I would have asked: When was the first time you ever doped? Was it something you sought out, or was it given to you by a coach, teammate, DS? If so, by whom? We heard from Armstrong’s 11 teammates about how each was pressured into doping upon joining the professional ranks. I’d like to know whether the same pressure was applied to Armstrong, or whether he sought out the unfair advantage – that would likely paint a very different picture.

* * *

Armstrong begins talking about the doping culture during his Tours de France and says: “I didn’t have access to anything else that no body else did.” [sic]

Oprah moves on to read a statement from USADA, but before she does, she says the reasoned decision was a 164-page report. Really? I guess she got the Readers Digest version, because it took me about 3 days to get through the entire 1000-plus pages (the decision and all affidavits supporting it). Did other teams have Michele Ferrari on an exclusive retainer? She let him introduce the “it was a level playing field” argument and didn’t even bat an eye.

* * *

LA: … There will be people who say there are 200 guys in the Tour I can tell you five guys that didn’t and those are the five heroes. And they are right.
OW: What did you think of those guys … now you just called them heroes but what did you think of those guys — at the time when you were riding — who were riding clean? Did you think they were suckers? Did you think they were … what?
LA: No, and that’s no, I didn’t. The idea that anyone was forced or pressured or encouraged is not true. I’m out of the business of calling somebody a liar…

How do you not follow that up with questions about Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni? The latter of whom Armstrong single-handedly chased down on stage 18 of the 2004 tour and bullied him — because he testified against Ferrari — in an effort to shut him up. How is that not force, pressure and (euphemistically) encouragement? He lied and she just let it go.

* * *

OW: Were you afraid of getting caught?
LA: No. … There was no testing out of competition. Theoretically there may have been, but they never came. … And throughout my career, there wasn’t that much out of competition testing.

Oprah is like a deer in the headlights listening to Armstrong talk about scheduling of EPO injections and showing up to races clear. However,  how does the above statement not set off alarm bells? First of all, you just had the guy who for the last decade screamed he’s the most tested athlete in all of sport say he wasn’t really tested that much.  Second, there are several documented accounts of Armstrong purposely evading testing. Mike Anderson, his one time friend, helper, mechanic described it in great detail in a recent article. Additionally, there are accounts in Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle's The Secret Race of how out of competition testing was thwarted, either by evasion or by stalling tactics.

* * *

OW: Your former teammate, Christian Vande Velde, told USADA that you threatened to kick him off the team if he didn’t shape up and conform to the doping program.
LA: That’s not true.

How hard was it, in preparation for that question about Vande Velde, to yank page 19 of his affidavit from the reasoned decision? Which in part reads as follows:

“119. Lance began without any small talk and got right to the point. He told me he felt I was not serious about my preparation for cycling and hand not been following Dr. Ferrari’s program.

120. Armstrong told me if I wanted to continue to ride for Postal Service team I would have to use what Dr. Ferrari had been telling me to use and would have to follow Dr. Ferrari’s program to the letter.

121. The conversation left me with no questions that I was in the doghouse and the only way forward with Armstrong’s team was to get fully on Dr. Ferrari’s doping program.”

Armstrong already stated in the interview that he’s done calling people liars, so why not confront him with these statements and ask: When Vande Velde made the above statements, was he lying in his affidavit, yes or no? Instead, she just let him move on and talk about the whole thing in ambiguous terms, like “I was the leader of the team and I led by example.” She let him go on denying the fact that he ever gave a verbal directive for anyone to dope.

* * *

When Oprah questions Armstrong about being a bully, toward the end of a long narrative and a couple back-and-forth exchanges (where he says that cancer is what made him a bully), he stated: “Winning seven Tours, I knew I was going to win.”

Let’s back this train up a bit. Less than 10 minutes ago, he was saying he felt everyone was doing it and in his mind it was a level playing field, and yet he knew he was going to win? How was he so sure? Was it because he was just overly confident in himself, or perhaps he knew that Postal’s doping program had no rivals at the Tour?

Moreover, immediately after, he begins talking about how doping was like putting air in tires and water in bottles, and that it was part of the job. Again, if it was so common, how was he so sure he was going to win every one of those seven Tours?

* * *

Oprah then comes back to the question of whether he pressured others to dope, and here’s where I was holding my breath for her to confront him with statements of riders. Instead, she threw him a softball:

OW: So you never suggested that [your teammates] see Ferrari?
LA: Umm, Ferrari … and again, it’s hard to talk about some of these things and not mention names, but there are people in this story … Let me say this, they are good people, and we’ve all made mistakes and there are people in this story that are not monsters, and they are not toxic, and they are not evil. And I viewed Michele Ferrari as a good man and a smart man. And I still do.

Immediately they cut to a video about Ferrari. So, where’s the answer to the above question? She asks him directly whether he told Postal Service riders to go see Ferrari and instead of answering, he pays homage to the guy. And when pressed about Ferrari’s involvement with the team, Armstrong simply backs out and refuses to answer under the premise that he doesn’t want to talk about other people.

* * *

OW: You’ve said time and again in dozens of interviews that you’ve never failed a test. Do you have a different answer today?
LA: Umm, no … I mean I never … I didn’t fail a test. Stuff was retroactively tested and so then technically, yes, retroactively I failed those, but the hundreds and hundreds of tests that I took I passed them. And I passed them because there was nothing in the system.
OW: What about the Tour de Suiss? The Swiss tour?
LA: Again, I’m going to tell you what’s true and what’s not true. That story [referring to Tyler Hamilton’s account of how Armstrong told him about the EPO positive test and that it was going to be taken care of] isn’t true. There was no positive test, there was no paying off of the lab, there was no secret meeting with the lab director.
OW: The UCI did not make that go away?
LA: Nope. And I’m no fan of the UCI. That did not happen.

Here Oprah tried, but I would like to have seen one more question asked: Are you saying Tyler Hamilton lied in his interview, book and affidavit when he described that incident at the Tour de Suiss, yes or no? Also, as to the "hundreds and hundreds of tests," there were only around 240 test he took throughout his career, which (counting only the years he was active) works out to fewer than 20 tests a year on average. 

* * *

OW: Why did you make that donation to the UCI?
LA: Because they asked me to. [He goes on denying there was a cover-up. Repeats that he’s no fan of the UCI] There were things that were a little shady; that was not one. They called and said they did not have a lot of money. I was retired. I had money. They said, “would you consider a donation?” I said, sure.

That statement was so well crafted, it completely confused Oprah as to what she even asked. First of all, the so-called donation was not made when Armstrong was retired. The UCI admitted in 2010  taking $100,000 in 2002, when he was still very much not retired. Second of all, according to the UCI, they accepted it, not solicited it. Third of all, there are two great follow-up lines of questioning Oprah failed to pursue. 1. What were the shady things you mentioned? Can you give some examples? 2. Who’s “they”? What was the name of the person who contacted you to ask for a donation?
This is critical information that is absolutely crucial to cleaning up the sport from the top down, yet no further inquiry was made.

* * *

OW: When the Department of Justice just dropped that case and no one knows why – I have to ask you -- did you have any influence in that whatsoever?
LA: No. None.
OW: When they dropped that case…
LA: It is very difficult to influence…

So was it just a coincidence that on the same day that André Birotte ordered the investigation closed, Feb. 3, 2012, Livestrong Foundation donated $100,000 to Planned Parenthood, an organization favored by President Barack Obama? The donation was made at the time when the Susan G. Komen foundation announced it would stop making donations to Planned Parenthood and the organization stood to lose a substantial chunk of its yearly funding.

* * *

OW: Was there anybody who knew the whole truth? Have you told anybody the whole truth?
LA: Yeah.
OW: Let’s go back to Kristen.

What? How do you not utter anther three letters after that “yeah” – who? Who was the person you told the whole truth? Who knows everything? How is that not a natural follow up to that answer?

To say the interview fell short of my expectations would be an understatement, and it may be because Oprah was focused more on Lance Armstrong than the world of cycling, but it doesn't excuse the fact that her alleged search for truth fell very short. 

*I suspect this was in no small part due to the advice of his lawyers. It is now clear that he lied under oath during his deposition in 2005 when he was involved in litigation with SCA Promotions, but the statute of limitations on perjury ran. However, any mention of a conspiracy now would revive the statute of limitation and could be the basis of a RICO action. Not to mention the ongoing qui tam action brought by Floyd Landis, which the federal government is on the brink of joining.