Cycling: Armstrong loses staunch believer

By Robin Scott-Elliot

Veteran Tour de France commentator tells of regret in fostering 'superstar' status for American drug cheat.

Phil Liggett, a long-time supporter, has accepted the evidence against Lance Armstrong. Photo / Supplied
Phil Liggett, a long-time supporter, has accepted the evidence against Lance Armstrong. Photo / Supplied

He has been one of Lance Armstrong's staunchest supporters, watched every wheel-turn that took the American to his record seven Tour de France wins - victories likely to be torn from him in Geneva tonight - and defended him as the allegations mounted that he had only achieved so much with the aid of a wide-scale doping programme. Now Phil Liggett, the voice of cycling, accepts that the man he placed on a pedestal deserves to be hauled down from it.

Liggett, who has commentated on 40 Tours, has been criticised as an unapologetic defender of Armstrong, but the sheer weight of evidence in the US Anti-Doping Agency report can no longer be denied, and it hurts.

"I hate the thought that I built these people into superstars in the minds of the public when they cheated," said Liggett.

"But if you look deeper down, they all seemed to have been cheating.

"I'm totally bemused by the whole thing now. I cannot believe it was so endemic.

"I'm not a friend of Lance, but I have been close to him in that I have worked with him on his cancer gigs. I have seen the other side of him when he has been so deeply embroiled in fighting cancer and helping others fight it. His other side is of course pretty evident too, that the whole team has taken drugs to succeed.

"He told me to my face in 2003 that he didn't do drugs. His words to me were that he'd been on his deathbed and he wasn't going back. I had no reason not to believe him."

On Saturday, Armstrong spoke in public for the first time since the USADA evidence was revealed, at a dinner in Texas to mark the 15th anniversary of the Livestrong anti-cancer charity he founded. "It's been a difficult couple of weeks for me and my family, my friends and this foundation" he said, having resigned from it as chairman two days earlier.

"I say, I've been better, but I've also been worse," he added.

Liggett has shared the stage with Armstrong at previous Livestrong events.

"The people I met by doing these events, in Canada and South Africa, I have seen them begin to believe in themselves again," Liggett said. "Lance, if he's anything, is a terrific motivator. Lance will be very, very sad inside that he had to walk away from that foundation. That will hurt more than anything else."

Prior to the publication of USADA's report, Liggett had described that body as a nefarious drug agency, and there is still an obstinacy attached to what appears to be a belief that the agency has pursued Armstrong almost as a vendetta.

"I think USADA only wanted one man - they wanted to bring down Lance Armstrong and everyone else has come down with him," he said.

Tonight, cycling's governing body, the UCI, will announce their response to USADA's report and Pat McQuaid, the UCI's president, will answer questions on the affair for the first time. The UCI would appear to have little option but to agree with USADA and confirm that Armstrong will be stripped of his titles. Beyond that there is a need for the governing body to accept a degree of responsibility.

"Absolutely they do," said Liggett. "On the other hand, they did work hard to try and make the sport transparent. They have had their moments, they have been argumentative with the two agencies [the World Anti-Doping Agency and USADA] because they are jealously guarding their corner."

Liggett believes the UCI should cut its links with Hein Verbruggen, the honorary president and the man in charge during the Armstrong era.

"He has never walked away, and that is a mistake. He should have gone when his term [as president] ended but he didn't want to let go. We have got to see a new direction from the top and we've got to see them willing not to turn any sort of blind eye, but to go in all guns firing to sort this out."

- Independent

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