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“The Tony Soprano of the Cycling World”: Dave Zirin on Lance Armstrong’s Doping Confession

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For the first time, cycling legend Lance Armstrong publicly admitted to doping last night, saying he won all seven of his record Tour de France championships with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Speaking to Oprah Winfrey, the cyclist recounted how he abused banned substances to ensure his victories despite zealously denying allegations of doping for years. “A lot of cyclists I’ve talked to talked about drug use as if it’s survival drugs,” says sportswriter Dave Zirin. “Now, all that being said, the answer is not, of course, to dope your body as an answer to that. The answer is a reformation of the sport, trying to make the courses safer, unionizing the cyclists so they have some sense of a collective voice.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to sports news, to the unraveling of one of America’s most renowned athletes: the cyclist Lance Armstrong. For the first time, Armstrong has publicly admitted to doping, saying he won all seven of his Tour de France championships with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Speaking to Oprah Winfrey last night, the cyclist recounted how he abused banned substances to ensure his victories despite zealously denying allegations of doping for years. Winfrey’s much-anticipated interview opened with a rapid-fire series of yes-or-no questions.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yes or no, in all seven of your Tour de France victories, did you ever take banned substances or blood dope?


OPRAH WINFREY: In your opinion, was it humanly possible to win the Tour de France without doping, seven times in a row?

LANCE ARMSTRONG: Not in my opinion.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yes or no, did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?


OPRAH WINFREY: Yes or no, was one of those banned substances EPO?


OPRAH WINFREY: Did you ever blood dope or use blood transfusions to enhance your cycling performance?


OPRAH WINFREY: Did you ever use any other banned substances, like testosterone, cortisone or human growth hormone?


AMY GOODMAN: During the interview, Lance Armstrong denied claims he was the kingpin of the doping program on his teams and insisted he never directly instructed teammates to take performance-enhancing drugs, as claimed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA. Armstrong has now been stripped of every single cycling achievement since 1998, including an Olympic bronze medal, and is banned from competition for life. And he no longer serves on the board of Livestrong.

We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius/XM. His upcoming book is called Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.

Dave Zirin, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of Lance Armstrong’s admission. Why does it matter?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, before I say anything, Amy, I have to say it says something certainly interesting, if not repugnant, that the federal government has millions of dollars to figure out what a cyclist did or did not put in their body, yet they’re not prosecuting the people who either crashed the economy or were in charge of the torture program under the Bush administration. I’m not sure what it says, but it certainly says something.

As for Lance Armstrong, his interview with Oprah Winfrey? I mean, “disaster” is not a strong enough word that I would use to describe how that went. It was a disaster both in form and in content.

Lance Armstrong had two goals last night. And they were very difficult goals; I described it as trying to cycle through the eye of a needle. He was trying to show the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that he was willing to play ball, that he was going to be contrite, that he was going to agree with their findings, and in return, they would lift the lifetime ban that hangs over his head from ever competing again. And at the same time, he was trying to push back, as you said, against that description of him as kind of the Tony Soprano of the cycling world, someone who facilitated doping through a whole host of other cyclists, under penalty of ostracization or even physical threats against those cyclists who would not dope as he did.

And he really failed on both counts very dramatically, because he strongly rebuked USADA’s findings, saying that he was this facilitator of doping. He said, “Absolutely not,” when Oprah asked that question, yet at the same time he did admit to bullying — and he used the word “bullying” — anybody who stood in his way. He admitted that he did frivolous lawsuits. He admitted that he tried to ruin people. He admitted that he lied for all these years, defamed people, tried to bankrupt people. And so, that didn’t exactly do him a lot of favors in the public relations standpoint. So, from that perspective, honestly, it was gobsmacking.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it was amazing, there was this moment when he was asked about, I think it was, his masseuse and whether she had—whether he was apologetic to her. He had sued her. Oprah asked if she had—if he had sued her. And he said, “You know, honestly, I can’t remember. I sued so many people,” and said she had told the truth, and yet still he had sued her.

DAVE ZIRIN: And, of course, he had the resources to ruin this woman’s life. I want to make clear to the audience that this is not a situation like with, for example, baseball doping, where you have baseball players, and then you have a management structure that benefits from them doping. Cycling is a very federalized world. Lance Armstrong is not just a star cyclist, he’s the boss of his team. He can be in charge of who gets fired and who gets hired. He can be in charge of what position people are able to be in in the context of this team. So he actually had social power over the other cyclists. So this question of whether he threatened to fire people, which Oprah did ask him directly, if they didn’t dope is actually a very important question. And USADA had people testify under oath that that exactly was the case. So for him to say, “Absolutely not,” in this interview that’s supposed to be this contrite confessional, he was accusing these other riders, he was accusing his workers, if you will, of perjury.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Dave, what about the intimations early on that he was going to turn the tables on his regulators and point out that there was a corruption, not only on his part, but on the entire cycling apparatus?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, that is certainly, absolutely true, and that’s something we knew before Lance Armstrong ever opened his mouth. You know, Lance Armstrong, as you said, won seven Tour de France titles. The reason why, now that he’s been stripped of those titles, they haven’t been given to the second-place finishers is that in each of those seven races, the second place finishers have also been found to be using performance-enhancing drugs. In fact, if you look at the top 10 finishers of each of his seven wins, 48 of 70 have been documented of having used performance-enhancing drugs.

And I have to raise a differentiation once again with cycling as opposed to something like baseball, for example. I mean, cycling, most of the doping has to do with increasing the oxygenation of your blood, increasing your lung capacity. I mean, if as many people died in the NFL, which has been under a lot of scrutiny, as have died in cycling over the last two decades, there would be weekly hearings on Capitol Hill. It’s an incredibly dangerous, incredibly taxing sport. And a lot of cyclists I’ve talked to talked about drug use as if it’s survival drugs. Now, all that being said, the answer is not, of course, to dope your body as an answer to that. The answer is a reformation of the sport, trying to make the courses safer, unionizing the cyclists so they have some sense of a collective voice. Lance Armstrong, by the way, is someone who’s come out strongly against efforts of cyclists to organize as a union. But that’s really where the discussion needs to be, not how do we make sure they can get away with doping more effectively.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Lance Armstrong on Oprah Winfrey’s show on Thursday night. He admitted he became a, quote, “bully” in the course of defending himself from accusations that he benefited from banned substances.

LANCE ARMSTRONG: I was a bully in the sense that you just—that I tried to control the narrative. And if I didn’t like what somebody said, and for whatever reasons in my own head, whether I viewed that as somebody being disloyal or as a friend turning on you or whatever, I tried to control that and say, “That—you know, that’s a lie. They’re liars.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your comment on that, Dave, and also ask if possibly the doping was related to his cancer, his testicular cancer.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, on the first question, I think, with that statement, I could imagine all of Lance Armstrong’s lawyers collectively clenching up when he said—when he said that, about being a bully and going after people, because I think over the next decade there is going to be a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of lawyers outside his compound waiting to sue Lance Armstrong. Everybody who feels defamed by him, everybody who felt like they had their earnings potential stripped by him—and this is a very long list; as Lance Armstrong said, he cannot remember all the people he sued—they will be countersuing him, not just for compensatory damages, but punitive damages, as well. It’s not going to be a fun decade for Lance Armstrong.

Now, were the steroids connected to his recovery from cancer? That’s a very interesting question.

AMY GOODMAN: Or getting cancer?

DAVE ZIRIN: Or getting cancer. That’s also a very—that’s unknowable at this point. That’s certainly something that people have speculated. People have also speculated about instances of just being a serious cyclist and getting testicular cancer, about links between those two practices. But the idea that it caused him cancer is unknowable. But the idea that steroids actually aided his recovery is also unknowable.

And this is where you get to that—this very nebulous territory that doesn’t get talked about too much in our discussion about these drugs, is that there really is a difference between use and abuse. There’s a difference between taking these drugs under the auspices of a medical professional and doing them illegally in a back room or in a bathroom stall. And it seems like this country is so far away from having this discussion of how can medical technology actually help people improve, as opposed to how can it just help them exploit their bodies to the fullest so they can win races and then die earlier than the typical American male or female.

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