“[This was] one big lie that I repeated a lot of times.”
— Lance Armstrong, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that aired Jan. 17, 2013
It is fair to say that in more than three decades of reporting, The Fact Checker has never written a sports story. But The Fact Checker has written a lot about people who stretch the truth — or to put it less delicately, are liars.
With Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey that he used performance-enhancing drugs to repeatedly win the Tour de France multi-stage bicycle race, the question arises: Is Lance Armstrong the biggest liar alive?
Take a look at this ABC News video, which is an amazing collection of repeated denials, over many years, by Armstrong that he engaged in doping. These are not simple shadings of truth, or careful weasel words. These are outright and often vehement denials, with a particular animus toward anyone who came forward to say that Armstrong was cheating in his sport — even when they made such accusations in sworn testimony.
Here are some other quotes, courtesy of BBC News:
“I have been on my deathbed, and I am not stupid. I can emphatically say I am not on drugs.”
— at the end of Stage 14 of the 1999 Tour de France
“This is my body and I can do whatever I want to it. I can push it and study it, tweak it, listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I am on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”
— in a 2001 Nike TV commercial
“I have never doped, I can say it again, but I have said it for seven years — it doesn’t help.”
— in 2005 on CNN’s Larry King
“I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one.”
— in July 2012
Armstrong was not just a user of banned drugs. The 2012 report by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said he supplied drugs to teammates and demanded they follow his doping program or be replaced: “He was not just a part of the doping culture on his team; he enforced and re-enforced it.”
Armstrong did not just lie. He actually sued London’s Sunday Times for libel when it suggested in an article there were grounds to suspect he used drugs — and he won a settlement. “The Sunday Times has confirmed to Mr. Armstrong that it never intended to accuse him of being guilty of taking any performance-enhancing drugs and sincerely apologized for any such impression,” the newspaper’s lawyers meekly said in 2006.
Armstrong also testified under oath in 2005 deposition, strongly denying any doping, winning $7.5 million from a company that had refused to pay a bonus because it accused him of cheating in the Tour de France.
In the interview with Winfrey, Armstrong asserted that he has been clean since 2005, meaning he did not use drugs when he made a comeback to cycling and placed third in the Tour de France in 2009. But given his track record, it is not clear why this new claim should be considered credible.
By any measure, Armstrong’s skill at lying, consistently over the years, is impressive. How does he stack up against others in sports, politics, journalism and entertainment?
Questions were first raised in 1999 about whether Armstrong engaged in doping, according to an authoritative collection of articles posted by Cycling News. The French newspaper Le Monde reported on an investigation of urine tests, indicating traces of a synthetic steroid hormone. Armstrong had reported to authorities that he had taken no drugs, and he dismissed the test as the result of using a skin cream for saddle sores. As the New York Times put it: “In a televised news conference after today's stage, a bitter Armstrong described himself as ‘persecuted’ and a victim of ‘vulture journalism.’”
The core of the Armstrong sports legend was that he battled third-stage testicular cancer at the age of 25, beat it and then won seven straight Tour de France titles, starting in 1999. Before his cancer treatment he had won two stages of the race, in 1993 and 1995, but had never placed higher than 36th.
Suddenly, he overcame an illness that his doctors had given him only a 40 percent chance of surviving — and became the top cyclist in the world.
In other words, Armstrong’s lies were at the very core of his achievements — and the reason why he became world famous. Without doping, he might have remained just another also-ran. Those Tour de France titles have now been revoked — a blank spot in the history of the sport.
In his 2003 book “Every Second Counts,” (written with our colleague Sally Jenkins), Armstrong adamantly denied any link to doping. He wrote:
At first, I tried not to take it personally, and to understand the motives behind the [2000 French] investigation. When an athlete doped, the competitors, spectators, and journalists are defrauded.... But I didn’t like being accused on no evidence.”
Armstrong’s Web site is replete with news releases that denounce the investigations into his past, noting that the Justice Department chose not to pursue charges after a two-year investigation. But he also chose not to contest the USADA’s sanctions, which included a lifetime ban and disqualifying all of his competitive results dating from Aug. 1, 1998.
The most obvious parallels to Armstrong’s case are the doping accusations against several major league baseball players, such as Roger Clemens, the seven-time Cy Young award winner, and Barry Bonds, the all-time home run leader. But Clemens was found not guilty of perjury after being accused of lying to Congress, while a jury deadlocked on perjury charges against Bonds. (He was convicted of one count of obstruction of justice, however.)
And then there is track star Marion Jones, who was stripped of three gold and two bronze medals after admitting that she had lied under oath about using steroids before the 2000 Olympics. Jones — who The Washington Post said was “once considered the greatest female athlete in the world” — had denied using performance-enhancing drugs until she pleaded guilty in federal court in 2007.
But Jones is different from Armstrong in a crucial respect. She said in court that her coach gave her what he called flaxseed oil, but she realized it was a performance-enhancing drug only when she stopped training with him. By contrast, Armstrong was the ringleader of a massive doping scheme, according to the investigators.
Jones was also contrite after her admission. “It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust,” she tearfully said after pleading guilty. “You have the right to be angry with me.... I have let my country down, and I have let myself down.”
When it comes to politicians, the definition of lying gets a bit more difficult, in part because the truth is more murky. After all, some will argue that George W. Bush purposely misled the nation about the intelligence concerning illicit weapons in Iraq, but he and his aides have insisted they were convinced the intelligence was correct.
In fact, the undisputed, major instances of lying involving politicians often have to do with sex — President Bill Clinton’s denial of “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, Sen. John Edwards’s denial that he had an affair and fathered a child as his wife was dying of cancer, and Rep. Anthony Weiner’s denials that he sent sexually suggestive photographs of himself to women via Twitter.
But, unlike in Armstrong’s case, these lies were not part of their central image. Indeed, the lies were intended to protect their political image, not enhance it.
In journalism, there have been famous cases of lying. Janet Cooke of The Washington Post invented a story of an 8-year-old heroin addict and passed it off as real, winning a Pulitzer Prize that had to be returned. Stephen Glass at The New Republic fabricated articles, as did Jayson Blair of the New York Times; Blair also plagiarized from other sources. Jack Kelley of USA Today long fabricated stories, even becoming a Pulitzer finalist, before he was eventually caught.
These are all substantial cases of professional dishonor. But it took a while for suspicions to build, and once confronted with the evidence, these journalists generally stopped making denials and left the profession. Armstrong kept up his lies — and his participation in sport — despite years of questions and doubts.
The actress Lindsay Lohan is habitually accused of lying — and will go on trial for perjury next month — but her antics have all but destroyed her career, not enhanced it.
Finally, there are various scam artists who have pretended to be Rockefellers — here’s one and here’s another — and charmed their way into high society, leaving anguish and sometimes death in their wake. But these men became famous only after their lies were exposed.
The Pinocchio Test
Armstrong, unlike some other sports heroes, has not been charged or convicted of criminal perjury. But his lies are monumental, endured for years and were aimed at creating an image that made him famous, wealthy and an inspiration for people with cancer. He was the ringleader of lying on his team — and he kept lying even after many of his co-conspirators and teammates had abandoned him.
It is a record of shame that he has only begun to confront reluctantly and under pressure — after almost his entire professional career has been wiped from the pages of history. Armstrong earns Four Pinocchios — for each Tour de France race in which he claimed he won first place without doping.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker