I was researching a quote to open this column, to see if it was accurate and where it came from. Most people have heard of the quote, “If you repeat a lie long enough, people will believe it,” which is usually attributed to the Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. He was said to be talking about one of the techniques the German government used during World War II to fool the public. But, it turns out, that’s not so.
According to reliable sources, the quote is a mis-quote, and Goebbels was actually talking about the German’s enemy, the British government of Winston Churchill. And the basis of the quote comes from a book Goebbels wrote in 1941 about “Churchill’s Lie Factory.” In the relevant paragraph, the translation goes: “One should not as a rule reveal one’s secrets…. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.”
This longer, more accurate quote may not be catchy but it is a more accurate way to describe the secrets that were revealed this week in the report by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency—“U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team Investigation,” to give the USADA report its full name. The most revealing secrets came from the lengthy list of affidavits at the back of the 202-page summary of the 1,000-page report sent to WADA and the UCI. Those signed testimonies by North American riders who raced with Postal team leader Lance Armstrong detailed why, how and for how long, they doped. Their admissions of guilt, which they made knowing there would be only minor penalties from USADA, effectively ended their big lie about doping that has been collectively spoken through two decades.
Like other journalists who’ve worked in cycling during the so-called EPO era, I was shocked to learn the depth and length of the cheating by riders I’d generally liked and/or admired. I’ve been to the homes of Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Michael Barry and Armstrong. I’ve interviewed them many times, as well as Dave Zabriskie, Jonathan Vaughters, Christian Vande Velde, Stephen Swart, Floyd Landis, Tom Danielson and Frankie Andreu. So why didn’t I know they all doped, you may ask.
At some point, I did talk with them about doping. Some flatly denied it, others said that doping was despicable, and others would quickly change the topic. Yes, like everyone else close to the sport, I heard the rumors that circulated, I read the words of investigative journalists Pierre Ballester, Paul Kimmage, Damien Ressiot and David Walsh, and I thumbed through the tell-all books by Kimmage, Erwan Menthéour, Willy Voet, Jef d’Hondt and Hamilton.
And I heard all the different hypotheses about which riders and teams were doping, and which weren’t, in conversations I had in press cars, press rooms and over glasses of wine or beer at the Tour or the classics with journalists such as the International Herald Tribune’s Samuel Abt, L’Équipe’s Philippe Brunel, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Rupert Guinness, De Telegraaf’s Raymond Kerckhoffs, The Sunday Times’ Walsh and one-time VeloNews’ colleagues Andy Hood, Charles Pelkey, Neal Rogers and Graham Watson. We would talk about doping, but there was very little you could authoritatively or factually report on the subject.
Walsh worked with Ballester for several years in writing their best-selling French-language book, “LA Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong,” which was based on an exhaustive list of interviews; but, as they wrote, evidence of cheating remained circumstantial (and their body of work played a large role in helping USADA identify many of their lines of inquiry). I quoted extensively from that 2004 book in a chapter about doping in the book I wrote that same year about the Tour de France, “23 Days in July,” because Ballester and Walsh gave some of the best insights into a complex subject.
Some called me naïve for not accepting that everyone doped, but I always wanted to give riders the benefit of the doubt, whether they were named Hincapie or Hamilton, Landis or Armstrong. I inherently trust people, especially those who look you in the eye and say they condemn dopers and doping. So reading those testimonies this week in the USADA report left a hole in my stomach.
What I found most upsetting was learning was how long much-admired riders such as Hincapie, Leipheimer and Vaughters had been doping, the great lengths they went to find the best performance-enhancing substances and methods, and the almost-flippant way in which they discussed drugs and hid their secrets from the world. And when I started looking through the Web and checking Twitter, I found that many others closely involved in elite-level sports also had a wide range of, mostly hostile, reactions to the riders’ revelations.
A leading British sports personality, marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, who like Armstrong is sponsored by Nike, said on Twitter: “Shocking! The depth, organization, brazen disregard for rules and [for] others….” Fellow British star Brad Wiggins said something similar. When asked by the BBC what he thought of the USADA report, the reigning Tour de France champion said, “I am shocked at the scale of the evidence.”
At the same time, Wiggins’ Team Sky sports director Sean Yates, who raced with Armstrong in the mid-1990s and was later invited by the Texan to become a director at his Discovery Channel team, had a mitigated view. “It's all pretty damning for Lance and the whole history of his seven Tour wins,” he said. “My opinion is one of disappointment. [I’m shocked] at the depth of the whole system. I worked with Lance but never had any indication this practice was going on…. I knew him from when he was young and he became world champion. I just believed he was a physically superior being, and that he was winning. He was also very, very determined, and this damning report bears that out in varying degrees.”
Another former teammate, Australian Patrick Jonker, who raced on the Postal team in 2000, felt that USADA’s “reasoned decision” went too far in calling it a team-run doping conspiracy. “To crucify Lance and only Lance would be unfair,” he said. “They need to crucify the sport during that era. The USADA were saying that in the Dauphiné race three weeks before the Tour de France that there was a blanket use of performance-enhancing drugs in that particular race by the team, and I was in that team with Tyler and Lance. The USADA pointing the finger at pretty much everyone is unfair. Me, myself, I am pretty sure the majority of the team were not taking drugs.”
A different take came from American masters racer Steve Tilford, who’s raced at all levels of the sport for the past four decades. On his Blog Thursday, he was sharply critical of what he called the spin coming from the riders who cheated and their current teams, especially the Garmin/Slipstream squad of Danielson, Vaughters, Vande Velde and Zabriskie—all of whom Tilford raced against earlier in his career.
“I have to applaud the end result,” Tilford said, “[but] the lies and reasons stink to high heaven. Here’s a piece of the Slipstream statement: ‘They have made another brave choice, to speak honestly and openly with the appropriate authorities, to confront their own pasts and cycling’s past and to accept the consequences, all in a continued effort to help the sport evolve.’ Is that what they think really happened? The spin is incredible. They don’t think that taking drugs for two, or four, or 10 years is enough to disqualify them from competing in the sport. They want the get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Another American racer, current pro Ben Jacques-Maynes, had a similar opinion in telling the San Jose Mercury News: “I grew up at the wrong time. I was racing against guys who were evidently doped to the gills. I'm sure they are exceptionally gifted anyway, but with pharmaceutical help they became the stars of American racing.”
One rider from the new generation of U.S. pros, Ben King, who races for Armstrong’s RadioShack-Nissan team, saw the USADA report as a chance to move ahead toward clean cycling. “I think any effort to clean up the sport is good,” he told The Guardian at this week’s Tour of Beijing. “Doping is a terrible thing and if their efforts are helping improve the quality of racing for all of us, then you have to applaud that effort. But I think times have changed….”
Asked at the same race about Armstrong’s legacy, two British riders on Team Sky felt that the Texan’s work for cancer patients was an important consideration. Veteran Steve Cummings said: "It is easy to point your finger at all the bad things, but you could look at the good things he has done as well, like his cancer charity.”
His rookie teammate Alex Dowsett had a more nuanced opinion. “When I first referred to Lance as a legend a couple of months ago it was referring mainly to what he has done for cancer. The Livestrong charity is something I rode for when I was with the Trek-Livestrong development team, and I saw all the good that it did,” Dowsett said. “[But] in terms of tarnishing the sport, [these revelations] could put us all out of, not just our jobs, but doing what we love.”
In similar vein, Britain’s multi-Olympic track champion, Sir Chris Hoy, told the BBC that the USADA report sent mixed signals to current racers. “It's so hard on these athletes, myself included, who work very hard. We do it clean, we put in years and years of effort…. You sacrifice a lot and then you win a gold medal, but there will be a percentage thinking, 'Well, I wonder if there was drugs involved in that performance,'” Hoy said. “So it's frustrating, and it's sad, but at least we're actually naming and shaming people, and it doesn't matter how big the names are.”
A man who led Hoy to his gold medals and Wiggins to Tour victory, Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford, observed before the USADA report came out that there were three types of characters emerging from the EPO era. “Most people are in survival mode,” he said. “Some of them will think they can survive by telling the truth. Other people say they can tell a bit of the truth. And other people think the only way they can survive is to deny everything.”
An insight into the attitude of denial taken for so many years by the likes of Vaughters, Leipheimer, Hincapie and Armstrong can perhaps be explained by the following thoughts from Leipheimer’s current team director Brian Holm at Omega Pharma-Quick Step. The former Danish racer, who retired in 1998, said this after he admitted to EPO use a few years ago: “Many from my generation say they were never doped, just as I said myself for a long time, because you thought that it really wasn’t doping or cheating. I actually think I could have passed a lie detector test when I stopped my pro cycling career because I was convinced I was clean. It is only years later that you start realizing that it may not have been the case after all. It had become such a big part of your daily routine.”
Pro cycling’s big lie began losing its impetus when organized doping within the Festina team was exposed at the 1998 Tour. The revelations of the 2006 Operación Puerto blood-doping ring (of which Hamilton was a part) triggered the multiple admissions of EPO use by members (including Holm) of the Deutsche Telekom team of Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich. Those confessions accelerated the process, but neither the Festina affair, the Puerto scandal or the Telekom mess were fully investigated by the French, Spanish or German cycling federations, nor the UCI.
So maybe, in 2012, this stunning USADA report will bring to an end the big lie and truly signal that doping doesn’t pay.
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