For more than a decade, Lance Armstrong has denied ever taking performance-enhancing drugs. But now, amid new allegations against Armstrong by former teammate Tyler Hamilton, federal agent Jeff Novitzky may have the evidence he needs to bring him down. Men’s Journal ran this story in our October 2010 issue.
However important it may be to Armstrong’s public image and to the lunch-ride debates of cyclists around the world, the question of doping may be irrelevant to the courts. Although it is illegal in France, Italy, and Spain under various “sporting fraud” statutes, using performance-enhancing drugs is not a crime in the U.S. So Tim Herman, Armstrong’s lawyer, has a point when he wonders, “Why is the federal government enforcing the rules of European bicycle racing?”
But Novitzky and his team of prosecutors don’t see this as a steroid case. To them it’s about money laundering, drug trafficking, and conspiracy — all of which are part and parcel of sports doping. They could be looking not just at athletes, but at team staffers and officials (like Johan Bruyneel), sponsors, possible suppliers of banned drugs, and perhaps even Thom Weisel, the San Francisco investment banker who founded and owned most of the U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel team. “The doping is almost irrelevant to the case,” says another lawyer familiar with the investigation. “The cover-up is where they’re going to get in trouble.”
After all, Barry Bonds is not on trial for using steroids; he’s charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. Marion Jones went to jail for lying. Armstrong, and anyone else who walks into that grand jury room in Los Angeles, needs to watch what they say — and consider their past statements under oath.
The trap may already have been set. Observers scratched their heads when Novitzky and prosecutor Doug Miller subpoenaed documents from Greg LeMond, Armstrong’s longtime nemesis. What could he possibly have to say that he hasn’t already? But LeMond’s 70,000-page document haul included material from LeMond’s legal battles with Armstrong over the years, including a major showdown last year with Trek, LeMond’s business partner and Armstrong’s longtime sponsor. (Trek has also been subpoenaed.) There are also thousands of e-mails, correspondence, and other bits of material that LeMond has gathered in the course of his decade-long feud with his Tour de France heir. “The documents tell the story,” LeMond says. “I have actually had to kind of walk away from all this shit. It’s been a kind of poison for me.”
In addition to LeMond’s trove, Novitzky also subpoenaed documents from the SCA lawsuit, which cycling observers had considered to be long dead and buried. The case went to arbitration and was ultimately resolved in 2006, with Armstrong getting $7.5 million in damages and costs. “I’d call that a victory,” says Herman. At the time, Armstrong touted the settlement as a vindication on the question of doping, but he could have a problem if it turns out that he lied under oath during exchanges like this one:
Q. You have never taken any performance-enhancing drug in connection with your cycling career?
Q. And that would include any substance that’s ever been banned. Is that fair to say?
Q. Okay. Well, why don’t you give me the definition of what you’re using when you say you’ve never taken any performance-enhancing substances. What would that include? Anything banned?
A. That would have — well, it would include anything on the banned list.
Q. Okay. For example, would — would that include that you’ve never used your own blood for doping purposes, for example?
A. Abso– that would be banned.
Q. Okay. I’m not trying to agitate you. I’m just trying to make sure your testimony is clear.
Couldn’t be clearer. And he was testifying under oath, so he’s married to that version, to the tune of $7.5 million.
The grand jury convened in August and began hearing witnesses. Eventually Armstrong will be subpoenaed, whereupon he will either admit to doping, or more likely stick to his strategy to brazen it out, which he’s done so successfully for a decade.
There’s a lot riding on the outcome: not only the career and legacy of one of America’s greatest athletes, but the hopes of thousands of cancer survivors who have drawn inspiration from his story. Armstrong was the rare athlete who transcended his sport — transcended all sports, really. Which is why he can’t just admit “mistakes” and apologize, à la A-Rod, and have everyone move on. And so we’ll have to wait to see if the truth is merely ugly or truly unbearable.