A ‘colossal meltdown’: Armstrong on doping, Travis Tygart, and today’s Tour de France
Speaking to a University of Colorado class in Boulder on Tuesday, Lance Armstrong fielded questions from students on several topics, including his decision to use performance-enhancing drugs, his 2009 comeback, and his perception of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which ultimately handed him a lifetime ban and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles.
Professor Roger Pielke Jr. invited Armstrong to speak to students at his Introduction to Sports Governance course. Pielke, who has been critical of both Armstrong and USADA in the past, hosted USADA boss Travis Tygart to speak with his class as well, a week prior.
Armstrong attended with his girlfriend, Anna Hansen, a CU-Boulder graduate who sat in the audience.
Other topics included how his life has changed since his January 2013 admission, whether or not pro cycling is better off after his admission and lifetime ban (he says no), where the line should be drawn with performance-enhancing drugs, and whether or not he’d do it all over again.
The first question was whether or not Armstrong could have won without blood doping. His answer? No.
“The EPO era … it was not like testosterone, or HGH, or cortisone. I often refer to it as high octane versus low octane,” Armstrong said. “Those are little one-percenters. EPO is a 10-percenter. In any sport whether it’s cycling or track and field or football, whatever it is, you throw 10% into it, and you just can’t … you might find success on a stage-by-stage basis, or at some obscure one-day race, but you won’t get over the mountains and win time trials with other guys who are high octane.”
One of Armstrong’s most pointed answers came when Pielke asked him how he viewed USADA, as an organisation, and the role it plays in sport.
Armstrong pulled no punches, saying that USADA is “one of the most ineffective and inefficient organisations in the world,” and that Tygart had gone after him because he had been “struggling for credibility”.
“First off all, Roger, Travis Tygart wouldn’t talk to you for a year,” Armstrong said. “Let’s be very clear. He wouldn’t talk to Roger, he wouldn’t take his calls, he wouldn’t come to anything here, until he heard I was coming, I suspect. And then, he got here. It is what it is.”
Pielke later said Armstrong’s claim about Tygart’s participation was “not accurate.”
“Last fall, I tried to get both Travis and Lance to Boulder,” Pielke told CyclingTips. “We screened the film Doped: The Dirty Side of Sports, by Andrew Moscato, and we put a panel together. I tried to get both Lance and Travis. It’s critical of anti-doping, and I think Travis was, maybe, a bit suspicious. We had also had Walter Palmer [a union organiser and advocate for athletes’ rights], who has been critical of anti-doping.
“Lance wasn’t the easiest to get to come, either. But I’m happy to let all of that be water under the bridge. The next semester, they both showed up. But no, Lance isn’t accurate in saying that about Travis’ participation. He’s not privy to my conversations with Travis, and vice versa.”
Pielke said he’d asked both men to speak with his class because they are “two protagonists of one of the biggest doping scandals … ever. My students are reading Wheelmen, as part of an assignment, but to see them both in the flesh, there’s no substitute for that.”
Asked if both men should be viewed as protagonists, Pielke said there within is the discussion.
“If you ask both of them, they will give you the opposite answer. But it’s important for students to see them articulate how the world looks, from where they sit. The purpose for the class isn’t to tell them what to think, it’s to teach them how to think, to see different viewpoints, and different arguments that are part of the whole deal.
“I’m pleased we are able to humanise the questions of sports governance,” Pielke said. “It’s ultimately about people, about personalities, and about egos. The purpose of bringing both of them in wasn’t for them to argue a position, or to put stake in the ground. It’s part of a bigger set of themes the students are getting over the semester. If this is a big puzzle we are putting together, Lance and Travis are two big pieces of the puzzle.”
In some ways, Tuesday’s Q&A session amounted to an open-mic for Armstrong. It was not a press conference; follow-up questions, though not prohibited, were rarely posed. Because it was part of a curriculum, Pielke asked that students be given the floor to pose questions.
And though a few members of the general public were granted the opportunity during the final 15 minutes, CyclingTips, hand firmly in the air, was not selected by CU staff handling the microphone.
Once one of the highest-profile celebrity athletes on the planet, Armstrong is now persona non grata within the sport of cycling, and has spent the past several years fighting a $100 million federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by former teammate Floyd Landis and joined by the U.S. government.
Nevertheless, Armstrong, as always, remains a complex, compelling, and sometimes contradictory figure. Whether or not he is contrite remains open to interpretation. What’s clear is that he staunchly feels he was unfairly branded as the face of cheating in cycling, ostracised as the scapegoat for an entire generation of doped riders.
“It’s been a rough couple of years for a lot of reasons, whether it’s from our family’s perspective, whether it’s from my own personal perspective, or whether it’s a financial or legal perspective,” Armstrong said. “It’s just been a complete, colossal meltdown, let’s be honest. Half of this room could be like, ‘You know what? Screw this guy. Screw this guy forever.’ Half might say, ‘I don’t know.’
“The answer to that is not that I don’t care. The answer is that I’m a little detached from that. I realize people have their own views, and those views might be firm and fixed forever, or those views might be flexible.”
Several of Armstrong’s answers are presented below, in their entirety. The eight-minute video above features several shorter answers on topics not addressed below.
“I have a lot of thoughts about USADA. I think the organisation is absolutely necessary. I think they are probably one of the most ineffective and inefficient organisations in the world for the amount of money. And I’m not criticising. It just is what it is. I’m not criticising Travis or the organisation. But if you consider a budget of $10 or $15 or $20 million a year, and then you lay that over the testing results, which come back at 0.2%, or 0.7% come back as positive, we know that is not a realistic number.
“I don’t know what the number is, whether it’s 10 or 20 or 50%, I don’t know. That tells you that that system is broken, too. It’s probably the reason that Travis and USADA needed something. They needed a case, they needed a story. I was that story, I was that case, it is what it is, and we’re here. But they needed something to show that they were effective. And they did, and it worked.
“And now the world views him and them and the organisation and all of their peers, and any other anti-doping agency, as truly effective, when they’re really not. But I don’t have the answer, and I’m not saying I do, and I’m not criticising them, that they don’t (have the answer.) But I suspect that, to take this case, and this example, and bring it out, 10-15 years, to bring a marquee case … I don’t know how anyone in this room would feel. How would John Elway feel if they went back and stripped him of his 1999 Super Bowl win? You might think that’s crazy. That’s exactly what happened.
“But if you have an organisation that is struggling for credibility — and believe me, I was the complete dumbass who made it totally easy for them to do this, right? So this is my fault. I did what I did, our culture and our era did what we did, but I took it so much farther. And that’s really the lesson for me in all of this.
“To go back 20 years ago, and question what a 25-year-old kid did, in Europe, when he showed up to a knife fight and everyone had guns … it was gnarly. But then, when this ball started rolling, the success … this wave started being created. I was way too aggressive as a person. That’s what enabled them to say, this guy is way out over his ski tips, and we’re going to make an example of him.”
[A USADA spokesperson declined to comment on this story. Worth note, however, is that in Armstrong’s 2013 confession to Oprah Winfrey, he said the following about anti-doping efforts in pro cycling: “Drug testing has changed, it’s evolved. In the old days they tested at the races. They didn’t come to your house, they didn’t come to your training camps, they tested you at the races. That’s shifted a lot, so now the emphasis of the testing – which is right – is in out-of-competition testing … Two things changed: The shift to out-of-competition testing, and the biological passport. It really worked.”]
On whether or not he’d do it all again:
“I get that all the time. You’re asking me, ‘would I do it again?’ I know, Roger told me, that Travis [Tygart] said, when he was here last week, that he wishes, or would want to know, if I would have gone to them, in 1995, when we made that decision [to dope]. Well, they weren’t there. There was no place to go. We waited, we waited, we waited, we relied on the UCI, we thought the UCI would figure out a test for EPO. It just wasn’t coming. And that met this wall, of trying to renew things [in 1999].
“But as a 45-year-old, trying to go back, to being a 25-year-old? No one wants to go back and talk about the stupid shit they did when they were 25. But I will say, I wish it was different. I wish it was different for all of us. When I went to Europe, and came from the domestic scene, came from professional triathlon, came from a very successful endurance background … this idea, and I will forever be at odds with Travis over this, that I was the biggest fraud in the history of sport is just not true. I came from a background where I was successful at every level I ever competed in.
“And you get to that, what you think is a knife fight … I wish that it was just a knife fight. I wish we were just dealing with low-octane stuff [performance-enhancing drugs], and it was just the best racing the best. But it wasn’t.
“I grew up, not dead broke, but fighting a little bit, in Plano [Texas], and I wasn’t about to turn around and home. I was talented, I thought I was talented, and these guys were playing differently, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m staying. I’m not going home.’
“The student athletes in this room, you know what that’s like. You’ve competed in middle school, and high school, and now you’re at this level, you want to go to the next level. You’re not going home. You didn’t get to the top of your sport, at any level, by being the person that goes home. It was a really shitty predicament, and that’s the thing that I wish, if I could go back, was different.”
On where the line should be drawn when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs:
“A nap is performance enhancing. Water is performance enhancing. Vitamin C is performance enhancing. There has to be a line. I get these questions all the time, and I think people expect me to say, ‘yeah, that’s a good idea.’ But I have a kid who is a sophomore in high school, and he plays sports. He’s into football, powerlifting, track and field, and he throws shot put. He’s a big kid.
“And I don’t want my son dealing with this. I’d rather he just show up and be like, ‘What’s up? Let’s go.’ I want there to be that line. This idea, that it’s just entertainment, just let them do whatever they want … I don’t think that’s right, either.
On pro cycling’s need for a rider union:
“We talked earlier about the anti-doping whereabouts system … I do think there has to be a period, if it’s in the race, there has to be a nighttime period … you just can’t go and wake somebody up. Say you have 10 favourites at the Tour de France. It’s the night before a big mountain stage, and one guy gets woken up? I mean, if you’re going to wake up all 10, maybe that’s different. But if one of them gets woken up, and nine get to sleep through the night, and the one guy that got woken up is a really shitty sleeper, he didn’t go back to bed … his Tour is over. I don’t agree with that.
“That idea is where a union is needed. There has to be someone who stands up and says, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ Travis might want to do that, or WADA, or the UCI, but these riders, as a whole, as a union, have to say ‘no.’ Just like any other sport. Look at the NFL. Look at Major League Baseball. ‘Uh uh. We get it, you want clean sport. We like that ideal. We’ll do what we can. But we’re not going to do that. And, by the way, we’re not going to do a lot of other things, either. We’re not going to ride on shitty, dangerous circuits and risk our lives. There are all these things in place that we’re not going to do.’
“If I was leading a true international union, and they proposed that [nighttime drug testing], absolutely not. And if that hurts people’s feelings, or throws the sport’s credibility into question, I’m sorry, but we’re not going to do that. I feel strongly about that.
“The NFL Player’s Association is not going to play ball with that. But more importantly, the [Dallas Cowboys team owner] Jerry Joneses of the world are not going to play ball with that. They ain’t. They’re not going to do that. They are in the business of making money in football. Putting people in the stadium, selling sponsorships, merchandise, whatever it is. They are going to quickly realise that if you let, what they view to be a rogue organisation, into your sport, and let them run shod over your sport, and make an example of Tom Brady, or Tony Romo, or Beast Mode, or whatever, that’s going to hurt them. That’s going to hurt the Jerry Joneses. Forget the Players Union. That’s going to hurt the business of football. And Jerry is going ‘Uh uh. No. Not in Jerry world.’
“And so, I agree with the union part, but I also know that the owners, whether it’s football, basketball, baseball, whatever, aren’t going to have that.”
On whether cycling is better off after his admission and lifetime ban:
“That’s a great question, and I probably have an answer for that, but no matter what I say, it would not please anybody. My own personal view of that is only going to get me in trouble. The answer to that, given by a surrogate, or someone else who is an outsider, is much more powerful than me saying it. If I say it, then people will say, ‘well of course you think that, Lance. Of course you feel bad about what happened to you.’
“There are ways you can look at it. I think about it, and even as removed from cycling as I am, I still try to follow the sport. I still think about it, and there are ways you can figure out if this has been good for the sport. You’re going to take this class. You’re going to get grades, you’re going to leave, and you’re going to ask ‘What did I do? Did I learn something? Was something helped? Was this initiative worth it?’
“You can look at the cycling industry. You can look at sales, domestically and internationally. You can look at the sport. You can look at television numbers. You can look at sponsorship numbers. You can look at participation numbers. You can look at all of these metrics, and you could figure out if this was good for cycling. I’m pretty sure I know what those numbers look like. For me to sit here and read you those numbers, or tell you what those numbers are, it would be almost unbelievable.
“I think the most important thing, the guys who are racing today, they are racing in 2015 and 2016, and they are asked questions about Lance Armstrong. If I was racing, being asked questions about 16 years ago — if I’m racing the Tour in 1999, and someone is asking me about someone who won the Tour in 1980 — I’d go [Bill] Belichick on them, like ‘that’s the dumbest question ever.’
“They’re still living with this. Chris Froome wins the Tour, it’s nothing but questions about ‘is this believable, is this possible? Lance Armstrong this, Lance Armstrong that.’ That’s not fair to him. That’s ridiculous, that we are still … I look at that, and I feel bad for them. And I’m not sure that this whole process has been good for them, because nobody believes them. And I really and truly think that is unfortunate.”