Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

New Zealander of the Year 2012: Stephen Swart

Former professional cyclist Stephen Swart courageously spoke out against doping in the sport when no one else dared. This year he was finally vindicated, when the sport's biggest star, Lance Armstrong, was exposed as a fraud and a cheat. Phil Taylor talks to the Herald's New Zealander of the Year

Stephen Swart. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Stephen Swart. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Stephen Swart told an unpopular truth for the good it might do.

It has taken years: 15 since he first told a journalist, eight since he became the first teammate of Lance Armstrong to go on the record about a plague of doping in their sport. In so doing, he willingly exposed himself, revealing that he used the endurance wonder drug, EPO, in his last year as a professional cyclist.

Professional cyclists endure physical hardship all the time. They haul their lean bodies up and down Europe's highest passes in races that last three weeks. What they and the sport couldn't handle was the truth.

Swart was the first to blow the whistle, to tell a story that said Armstrong was not the person he claimed to be. Swart was among a rare few, a handful whose honesty cost them years of ridicule, character assassination and, for some, financial ruin.

And finally, they were vindicated. 2012 became the year that truth prevailed in cycling.

It would be wrong to suggest the code of omerta that protects the secret of doping, the cancer within sport, is broken but it is sufficiently cracked to allow the light in. With that comes hope of a brighter future, hope that the increasing number of talented and determined New Zealanders working their way to the top of cycling will not have to face the choice of doping or accept a lesser career. Kiwis are strong people, they excel so long as the playing field is level.

In October, Armstrong was stripped of his seven tour titles and, along with US Postal Service cycling team associates Dr Luis Garcia del Moral, Dr Michele Ferrari and Jose Marti, was banned for life from Olympic sports for what prosecuting agency the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) called "a massive team doping scheme, more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history" and "the greatest heist sport has ever seen". Swart was one of 11 former or current cyclists who provided testimony to the USADA. He has stood beside his story despite the difficulty of telling a truth the world seemed not to want to hear. Once he'd told, he couldn't just stop telling, the Waikato-born cyclist said, even though for a long time he doubted any good would come of it.

"I didn't have second thoughts about it but, obviously, it was hard," Swart says this week. "People can be pretty cynical and doubt what you are saying, but I knew what I knew. It took a long time, but you still have to plant the seed.

"As long as you believe in the stance you are taking and why you are taking it, then you have to stay strong with it. My motivation was that the sport, when I left it [at the end of 1995], was in a very bad state. I had a young son showing interest and asking questions. What was I supposed to tell him? You want to give him the choices but you don't want to hide it from him either. If I was to tell him one thing and tell the media something else, that wouldn't sit right with me."

Cycling online message boards heaped bile on Swart; even his friends were divided. One, a teammate from the early days of Swart's career, still can't bring himself to read the evidence. Even after the USADA published its 200-page reasoned decision and nearly 1000 pages of supporting evidence, Swart's nephew kept wearing a yellow Livestrong bracelet, the badge of Armstrong and his cancer charity. "He sells bikes and is in the cycling world - and that's what you do," says Swart's wife, Jan.

There had never been a sport where the incentives of drug-takers and drug-testers was so out-of-kilter than in the Armstrong era from the mid-90s until recently. The temptation was almost irresistible when it became clear that "blood doping" (the use of artificial blood-boosters and transfusions to boost oxygen supply) provided a marked advantage in races like the Tour de France and that the prospect of failing a doping test was zero or negligible. There was no test for EPO and human growth hormone until the turn of the millennium. That period coincided with the tail-end of Swart's career.

Doping had long been cycling's inconvenient truth but the stakes skyrocketed when Armstrong strode the stage. He was gold not only to cycling's administration and to team owners (of which Armstrong was one); and to managers, doctors, sponsors; but also to the wider bicycle sales industry. To his fans, cycling was almost incidental: Armstrong was an icon who touched something deep. Fans believed "Lance" was the victim of a witch hunt because it suited them not to believe the opposite.

Swart's truth ran up against a story so inspirational few could resist its seductive power. Much more than a simple comeback story, it spoke to our fear of mortality, of helplessness and appealed to a weakness that desires heroes. The strutting Texan had kicked cancer's butt and returned to conquer the toughest bike race on Earth, on bread and water. Over and over again.

Survivorship became his brand; followers snapped up yellow Livestrong bracelets by the million. He became much bigger than the sport. A book about the tour by an American author was called The Tour de Lance. Armstrong even tried to buy the Tour de France but couldn't raise the US$1.5 billion price tag. Everybody wanted to rub up against the man with the Midas touch. Presidents took his calls, not just of cycling's governing body, the UCI, but of the United States of America and of France. Thrown to the wind was the caution neatly put in 2001 by Greg LeMond, the American three-time Tour winner and now the only official winner from the US: "If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sport. If he isn't, then it is the greatest fraud."

Who cared? "He might have taken drugs? Well, bring me the same," Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted as saying in 2004. Armstrong gave the then French president a custom bike.

Swart didn't need to speak up: he hadn't failed a drug test, as Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton had; he hadn't been trapped by the prospect of perjury, as George Hincapie had. US journalist Gwen Knapp wrote in October: "Swart confessed and implicated Armstrong years ago, with the minimal provocation of a journalist putting the question to him."

His story went public in 2004 as part of a book, co-authored by London Sunday Times sports journalist David Walsh, whose long-running investigation of doping in Armstrong's teams made him the Texan's nemesis. Swart features in a new book, Seven Deadly Sins, published this week, in which Walsh tells the story of his journey of discovery.

"In the story of Lance Armstrong, Stephen Swart wasn't only the first to blow the whistle on one of sport's most audacious cheats," Walsh told the Weekend Herald this week, "he would endure as one of the strongest. For true whistleblowers, it is never about vengeance or vindictiveness and for Stephen the story he told wasn't primarily about Armstrong but about a sport that was betraying an entire generation of athletes. 'When you're a young kid dreaming about being a pro cyclist,' Stephen said so many times, 'you don't think you should be learning pharmacology, but when I became a pro, that was what was demanded. You had to be an expert in pharmacology'.

"Stephen wanted to tell the world about his unfulfilled experience as a professional sportsman and to play his part in ensuring the next generation of cyclists wouldn't have to face the choice he faced: dope or fail. He tried doping but his heart wasn't in it and he soon settled for a lesser career. How frustrating it was to know that if, as he himself once said, 'everyone had stood naked on the start line, without any chemical assistance', he would have had a much better career. But pro sport wasn't fair and he would return home to build a new life for himself and his family in Auckland.

"I especially admired Stephen because when the pressure came on he was as unwavering and unflinching as an All Black forward of yesteryear, and with the same quiet modesty.

"When another source of mine, Armstrong's masseuse Emma O'Reilly was upset by the vitriol directed towards her in 2004, she drew strength from an interview Stephen did with The New Zealand Herald. 'If he can be strong, so can I,' she said. But the reason that Stephen Swart, Emma O'Reilly and a third source, Betsy Andreu, will always have a special place in the unmasking of Lance Armstrong is that they told the truth for no reason other than a belief in the importance of the truth. All they got in return was bullying and intimidation. Their courage is now seen for what it was and we should all rejoice in that."

To the likes of David Howman, the former Wellington lawyer who is the director-general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Swart is a pioneer. Science can do only so much to catch those who dope, Howman told the Herald from his home in Montreal, so more and more reliance is being made of other sources of evidence. "Whether it be evidence collected by the police, or customs, or individuals who volunteer evidence - all can be used to ensure those sophisticated cheats such as Armstrong do not prosper."

The WADA fully realises, Howman says, the risk taken by whistleblowers in cycling, where breaking the omerta meant banishment from the sport totally. The risk was magnified if the evidence implicated Armstrong.

"Looking back now, I can fully comprehend the risk that Steve Swart took when he opened up about Lance Armstrong many years ago. The bullying, threatening manner that Armstrong and his cronies carried on both in respect to those riders who dared to tell the truth, but also to other members of the entourage who did similarly was quite dreadful. The accompanying stress from telling the truth is something that ought not to be borne by any individual."

To Jan Swart, Stephen is simply her husband, a man who didn't flinch when it turned out his toughest battle in cycling did not come astride a bicycle. Speaking up had ramifications not just for Swart but for his family, which includes big brother Jack, an outstanding cyclist himself, who was named New Zealand Cyclist of the Year six times in the 1970s and 1980s. The family has been right behind Stephen. "Stephen is very quiet but when he believes in something, he fights," Jan says. "I was against Stephen coming out because I didn't want him to be so defaced. But I am so proud that he had the guts to stand up to everybody. I love his honesty and his integrity."

She tells of their resolve that her husband would not dope when his career took him to Europe to race the world's best and how that was eroded, of the phone call her husband made telling her that he needed to go on EPO to be part of the Tour team.

"Every profanity I had ever learned came out of my mouth. We always said that if he had to do drugs to stay in the sport, he was out of it. He talked me through it, said it was one little bit, it wouldn't hurt."

Swart bought the hormone and administered it himself. "Knowing what we know now after reading Tyler Hamilton's book and a few other things, what he took and how he took it would have done no bloody good anyway. He had no idea you had to have everything else in line for it to work." That was 1995 and at the end of the season he weighed his options and decided that where the sport had gone was no place for a family man. "Quite frankly, blood doping ended his career," says Jan, "because he wasn't prepared to do what was required of him. That and the children." The Swarts had Logan and Olivia by then; Maddison and Ginny were yet to be. "With children you think, 'what are the long-term effects, will it kill him?"'

Soon after EPO came on the market in the late 1980s, a dozen cyclists are reputed to have died in their sleep as a result of it turning their blood to sludge. During a 13-month period in the Armstrong era, seven active or retired cyclists 35 and younger died mysteriously. There was no inquiry.

"One reason for Stephen deciding to come out was that Logan was becoming really keen on cycling. He said he'd never forgive himself if Logan followed him into the sport and he hadn't tried to change it. When he first spoke out I was quite happy, but when Lance started getting bigger than Texas, I thought 'oh my God, can't we just drop all this and move on', because Stephen always looked like the bad guy and that was really hurtful."

The nephew's yellow band was recently consigned to the dustbin and a weight has lifted from Swart's shoulders. Suddenly, and at long last, a proud New Zealander feels he is believed.


The other finalists for New Zealanders of the Year 2012

Tevita Ngalu: Weightlifter who battled on through injury to send his teammate to the Olympics.

Jan Wright: Outspoken Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Diana Crossan: Exiting Retirement Commissioner who helped put superannuation on the national agenda.

Tamati Kruger: Patient and eventually successful Tuhoe negotiator.

Peter Stewart: Inspirational chemistry teacher.

Kimbra: International chart-topping singer.

Helen Winkelmann: High Court chief judge who tackled criticism of the judiciary head-on.

Mike Williams: Edgewater College counsellor and anti-bullying strategist.

Juliana Venning: Wellington peace activist who knocked out Mike Tyson's visit to New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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