AFP Photo/Franck Fife
by Justin Davis
It was a familiar scenario, one I’d seen many times before: national and international sports journalists versus Lance Armstrong, with the legendary – now infamous -- American pushing back against persistent accusations of doping.
A reporter for AFP, I was covering the 2011 edition of the Tour Down Under, Australia's biggest bike race and the scene of the seven-time Tour de France champion's international swansong. As happened throughout a career shadowed by suspicion, Armstrong wiggled his way out of that particular barrage of questions to ride another day.
But for once, the Teflon-like veneer the American had built up during years of masquerading as a bona fide, clean cycling paragon showed the tiniest of cracks.
As part of a deal with organisers that also involved a hefty participation fee, Armstrong had been giving daily press conferences to an enthusiastic but often starry-eyed Australian media around Adelaide. The humdrum was broken overnight when American magazine Sports Illustrated published a lengthy article detailing a federal investigation into the sporting icon that would provide the bulk of the evidence for a subsequent, more decisive probe by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
AFP Photo/Patrick Hertzog
AFP’s subsequent exchange with Armstrong would go down in cycling folklore as the day the 'Dude' -- a moniker, incidentally, conferred on me by Armstrong himself – faced off against the seven-time Tour de France champion.
As Armstrong stood next to his team's mini-bus, finalising preparations for the start of that day's stage, a small melee of reporters gathered. Jumping in to ask Armstrong for comment on several points in the Sports Illustrated article, it was no surprise to be rebuffed at every attempt. It was startling, however, to see Armstrong -- a man who had successfully fought cancer AND the insistent glare of media suspicion -- lose his cool.
"Dude, are you that stupid? Which part of 'I am not commenting' is not clear to you?" he snapped. When the steely-blue eyes of the world's most famous cyclist burn into you, with a 'Dude' and a 'stupid' thrown in for good measure, you kind of lose balance.
It took a moment for me to muster a shaky reply: "I am not stupid. I'm... just asking."
AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard
When a radio reporter jumped in with a rather untimely, "what d'ya think of Adelaide, Lance?", it gave Armstrong a brief respite from what threatened to become a collective quest for serious answers to serious questions. Ultimately, Armstrong sidestepped scrutiny that day claiming "there is nothing” to allegations. (The USADA investigation, of course, would later conclude otherwise.)
But not before offering what, to some, looked like an apology. Turning to me, Armstrong said: "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to call you stupid, but you can't hear. Do you have any more questions?" "That's okay, Lance.” I replied. “I am just here to do my job, just like you."
That was my last direct contact with Armstrong.
I am far from alone in having clashed with the famously testy cyclist. Some sports reporters -- David Walsh, author of the controversial Armstrong expose 'LA Confidential', and fellow Irishman, Paul Kimmage, to name two -- made digging up the truth about Armstrong the raison d'etre of their careers.
But there’s a flip side to the media circus surrounding the most famous and bankable cyclist on the planet. Some journalists – or individuals masquerading as journalists – were in probably in fact moles working for the Armstrong camp. Indeed, among the fraternity of cycling specialists who covered Armstrong's incredible story, evidence of such moles is legendary.
One of my very first assignments on my first Tour de France, in 2001, was to doorstep Armstrong's US Postal team bus on the morning L'Equipe newspaper made stunning claims about his links to the Michele Ferrari. The notorious Italian doctor is currently awaiting a ruling from Padua prosecutors who carried out an in-depth investigation which showed he masterminded a network designed to help top athletes cheat without being caught.
Little did I know that morning how deeply Armstrong was entrenched in what can now arguably be described as the biggest sporting hoax of all time.
I suspected that obtaining a direct comment from the man himself would be difficult. But, perhaps naively, I did not imagine that a fellow 'journalist' would go out his way to divert media from asking questions which needed answered. "You know, there's absolutely nothing in that report," said a voice to my right as I stood waiting patiently, newspaper report in hand, for Armstrong to emerge.
Believing I had just been reprimanded by one of Armstrong's staff, a discussion ensued about Ferrari and the presumed innocence of Armstrong. I later found out the individual in question was a 'journalist' working for a well-known cycling website.
Over the years a dividing line between 'pro-Armstrong' and not-so pro-Armstrong journalists began to emerge. While some, like Walsh, defiantly attempt to expose the truth behind the gob smacking performances by Armstrong and his team, others clearly sought to drive the discussion elsewhere.
AFP Photo/T. Clary/T. Blackwood
"Hey Lance, nice socks! What's the thinking behind the black socks Lance?" asked one American journalist at a packed press conference in 2009. Wry chuckles went up around the room amid the suspicion the query had not been motivated by curiosity alone.
They say it's important to keep you friends close, but your enemies closer. But Armstrong, resting on his oft-repeated defence – "I've been tested 500 times and I've never tested positive" – did not adhere to that proverb. As suspicions around his performances grew over the years, only ‘friendly’ media were given the kind of access all sports reporters seek.
Working for one of the world's three global news agencies can often open doors when athletes, teams and organisers have things to say and want the world to know. But when there are stories to hide, doors can shut in your face just as quickly.
Armstrong's distrust of the French is well documented, especially after French television journalists claimed they had found evidence of doping after raked through rubbish from US Postal's team hotel in 2000. In one interview Armstrong later said: "An American looks at my story and says, 'Hell, yeah, of course he did it. He's motivated, he's crazy, he's passionate'. A French guy, he says, 'C’est pas possible (it's not possible)."
AFP Photo/Marin Bureau
I experience the ‘shut door’ syndrome during one edition of the race at a rare, round-table press conference at which only American media and 'friends of Lance' were welcome. Having somehow gained access, I wanted to find out how Armstrong would react if asked if he would be interested in trying to set a new world hour record.
The world hour record is regarded is one of cycling's big feats, held in the past by greats like Eddy Merckx. Arguably, it could be the ultimate test of Armstrong's individual prowess on a bike. Sitting directly to his right, Armstrong eyed me with suspicion when I asked if one day the hour record could be a target.
"Who is it you work for again?" came Armstrong's gruff reply, before he spoke briefly about a challenge that he might "possibly" take on in the future. In seven words, it became clear that further questions hinting at anything other than clean performances would not be welcome. His steely stare was the same one that bore into me almost two years later ago to the day in Adelaide as I tried to ask for comment about the Sports Illustrated accusations.
Looking back, as the fall-out from the Armstrong scandal continues, the only real shock is the zeal with which the USADA pursued Armstrong, and the fact he has now confessed to Oprah Winfrey.
Several years ago, at the height of Armstrong's fame, sportswear giant Nike commissioned an advertisement which simultaneously capitalised on and mocked the media's suspicion of Armstrong's performances. It showed him giving blood to suspicious doctors and then riding his bike in the rain. "Everybody wants to know what I'm on," said Armstrong. "I'm on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?"
After 13 years of denials, we now all know what Lance was on.