Tour de France: Can Lance Armstrong keep his Teflon image?
As the Tour de France gets under way, defrocked 2006 winner Floyd Landis has put forward fresh, detailed doping allegations against Lance Armstrong. But Armstrong has become as famous for deflecting scandal as for leading the peloton.
In a Wall Street Journal exposé this weekend, Landis portrayed him as a Texan cowboy who has flouted everything from stop signs to morality to antidoping rules, and encouraged his teammates to join in. He described Armstrong getting blood transfusions on the team bus when the driver pulled over and feigned a breakdown.
But Armstrong’s Teflon persona has so far deflected not only Landis’s claims, but all previous accusations about his character, his marital problems, and his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Unprecedented for his success and leverage in the US cycling community – those who speak against him are severely punished – he has strengthened his immunity by becoming an established celebrity outside the cycling world.
“Here’s a guy who hangs out with Matthew McConaughey, Bono, and Ben Stiller,” says Neal Rogers, managing editor of American cycling magazine VeloNews. “A lot of people, especially in the US, they don’t equate Lance Armstrong with athleticism any more.”
A modern folk hero who makes $20 million
In a recent TV commercial for his team sponsor, RadioShack, Armstrong sits atop a bike in a small office, lecturing his assistant on the finer points of voicemail etiquette.
“It’s the 21st century ... if all you have to say is, ‘Call me,’ just send a text message,” Armstrong says, channeling his inner Jerry Seinfeld.
On the office walls hang three framed posters of the seven-time Tour de France winner in action. Each have a different one of the following motivational words underneath: Inspiration. Courage. Perseverance.
Presenting himself as an affable guy who’s not afraid to ham it up, Armstrong is also a modern folk hero — a driven world-class athlete who survived cancer. When he announced his return to cycling in 2008, he said he was aiming to build awareness for cancer.
Armstrong, a consummate businessman, raises money for cancer research through his LiveStrong foundation.
None of those firms have blinked at allegations from Landis, who first accused Armstrong of doping in May.
Many accuse Landis of seeking revenge amid bitterness that he was singled out for doping in a sport that for many years tolerated, if not condoned, systemic drug use. Armstrong has also called into question the credibility of Landis, who recently admitted lying about his own doping in an autobiographical book and in arbitration hearings over the failed drug test that stripped him of his 2006 Tour de France crown.
A Twitter offensive
In a statement after the most recent Landis allegations, Armstrong said that he had too much work to do in his “continued fight against cancer” to reply to the charges – a tactic he's frequently used to deflect criticism.
“This has been a constant thing with him, anytime he comes under pressure he takes out the cancer flag,” says Paul Kimmage, a sports journalist for the Sunday Times in London.
But Armstrong rarely finds himself on the defensive; he has worked hard to proactively control his image in the media.
He’s limited media access to the point where reporters regularly rely on his Twitter feed for quotes. He has also punished disloyalty from former teammates and associates.
“There’s a very harsh price to pay [for speaking against him] because of his power within the sport,” says Mr. Kimmage, a former professional cyclist who revealed his own doping experiences in the book Rough Ride.
Armstrong attacks media like a tough Tour stage
When negative stories have been published, he’s responded quickly and harshly.
In 2005, French newspaper L’Équipe accused Armstrong of using the banned drug EPO in the 1999 Tour de France.
The paper reported that France's Châtenay-Malabry antidoping laboratory, which is accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, had decided to retest samples from 1999 after developing an EPO test in 2000. Of twelve samples analyzed, six were Armstrong's and showed EPO use, the paper reported. It ran an in-depth feature, quoting lab director Jacques de Ceaurriz as saying that there was "no possible doubt as to the validity of the results."
Armstrong attacked the paper, calling their science “faulty” and blaming strained Franco-American relations for continually making him a target of doping allegations.
Armstrong had previously launched a lawsuit against a former L'Equipe journalist, Pierre Ballester, for coauthoring a book "L.A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong" that included statements from Armstrong's masseuse and others that he had used performance-enhancing drugs.
No antidoping agency has ever accused Armstrong of failing a drug test.
Why Landis accusation may test Teflon image
But though Armstrong has successfully parried repeated attacks throughout his career, Landis’s allegations – tainted as they may be by credibility concerns – may present a more difficult battle for him.
“The thing that makes these different is the fact that it’s someone as high profile as Landis, an ex-teammate,” says Daniel Benson, the editor of Cycling News. “It was someone who was really in the circle and the level of detail is staggering.”
Right now it’s Landis’s word against Armstrong’s. But that could change: the US Food and Drug Administration has launched a federal investigation into the matter.
How loyal is Armstrong's cadre?
The investigation is being chaired by Jeff Novitzky, the hard-nosed investigator who jumped into dumpsters outside the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) to find syringes and other materials to break the BALCO steroids ring. His work ultimately helped bring down more than a dozen athletes affiliated with BALCO, including baseball player Barry Bonds and track star Marion Jones, who had to give up her five medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“The reason that this won’t go away is that there is this federal investigation now,” says Mr. Kimmage of the Times. “And Floyd cast the net to include people like [former Armstrong teammates] George Hincapie and Dave Zabriskie. They may be ‘loyal’ to [Armstrong], but they will not go to jail for him.”
Even if Armstrong were to be guilty, however, his supporters and sponsors may still embrace the Lance brand.
“I think people have sort of made up their minds about Lance,” says Rogers of VeloNews. “There are people who hate him and see this as vindication and the people who love Lance, they’ve already turned a blind eye. I don’t think this is going to change that much.”