By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — The memory from the 2003 Tour de France remains fresh — because it was among the more astounding things I've seen as a journalist.
His collarbone fractured in two places from a crash the previous day, Tyler Hamilton oh-so-gingerly eased himself down from his team bus, step by wincing step, and painfully climbed onto his bike. He rode all that day, in pain so vivid he later described it as a color — electric green. And the next day, and the next 17 stages after that — thousands of kilometers to Paris.
Now, Hamilton confesses that his body was awash with banned drugs and blood transfusions, that the "feat" of his fourth place that year behind first-place Lance Armstrong wasn't the story of pure, teeth-grinding determination it seemed when I reported it.
What a dope.
I mean me, not just him.
It feels like a punch to the stomach to learn that Hamilton and other former teammates of Armstrong were for years systematically doping — and say that he was, too — because it happened under our very noses, we reporters who waited daily outside the team buses at the Tour, doing our job.
I and others didn't see that Armstrong's team was running what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency now tells us was "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."
Why? I'm not the only journalist who has been asking themselves that question since USADA published damning testimonies from former U.S. Postal Service riders last week, to explain why it banned Armstrong for life and erased his seven Tour titles.
"We were all good actors. We all had two faces — the face for the public and for the journalists, and the face behind closed doors," says Hamilton, who rode the 1999-2001 Tours at Postal with Armstrong but was with Team CSC in 2003.
"You're almost like a robot," he says. "My answers when I spoke to journalists, especially when it got to the doping kind of questions, they all became kind of standard."
So that was a big part of it: Co-conspirators in the Postal fraud were capable not only of deceiving themselves that doping was necessary but of looking people in the eye and saying, "Me? Drugs? Never!"
Look again at video of Armstrong saying words to that effect ad nauseam over the years. There's nothing, to my eye, in his body language, his unblinking stare, to suggest even now that he wasn't telling the truth. I always figured that there'd have to be, that grotesque lies can't be told and retold without there being some telltale twitch or furtive expression. Naive? I've been asking myself that question this past week, too.
Was I negligent, even willfully blind? I'd like to think not. I heard the mounting drumbeat of suspicion that surrounded Armstrong's ever-longer string of wins and mentioned it in reports from the Tour, which I covered from 2003-2006. But, in light of USADA's findings, I now wish that I had reported the doubts more prominently. Hindsight is very illuminating.
I also read the work of colleagues — David Walsh, Pierre Ballester, Damien Ressiot and others — who defied Armstrong's myth-making, power and lawyers, dug deeply, and produced books and reports alleging or suggesting he doped. They're among the few who emerge from all this with enhanced reputations.
But to me and other reporters at the Tour, there wasn't the critical mass to be able to say flat-out that Armstrong was a cheat. His story — cancer survivor wins toughest bike race — was so extraordinary that I agreed when he said in 2004 that proof of doping needed to be extraordinary, too. Until last week, we didn't have the smoking gun that USADA's extraordinary proof, with testimony from 11 former teammates, appears to be.
"It's just so easy to say, 'Yeah, the journalists should have dug deeper.' Well, my God, Walsh and Ballester dug as deep as you could dig and, you know, they didn't get anywhere. They really did not get anywhere," says Samuel Abt, who reported from 32 Tours, writing for The New York Times and other publications.
"I've gone back, in fact, and looked at some of the things that I wrote at the time and I didn't find any of it embarrassing. Now, of course, I find it uninformed. But, like you, there was nothing else to do. We just didn't know anything and suspecting is not the way to go on this."
"I had terrific access to him because I had known him for so long," Abt adds of Armstrong. "In '99, at Alpe d'Huez, he gave me an interview and I asked him, straight out. I said, 'Are you doping?' And he said, 'No way!' I don't remember the exact quote now. He said, 'Absolutely not.' He said, 'There's no reason I would,' and he went on and on and he flatly denied. And it was all a lie. Yeah, he was a terrific liar."