NEW YORK — The fall of Lance Armstrong was as steep as the mountains he climbed en route to the Champs-Elysees and life as a global icon. He left a trail of destruction on the way up and on the way down.
The damage included the careers of teammates and support staff whom he verbally attacked or sued. Millions of dollars invested in cycling’s biggest star by corporate sponsors large and small are now gone. Armstrong’s Livestrong anti-cancer charity, whose yellow plastic donation bracelets were once ubiquitous, faces questions about whether it can retain support. Some former backers may have millions of dollars in legal bills as litigation over the sports fraud plays out.
“He’s Bernie Madoff on a bike,” said John Llewellyn, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The level of self-absorption and mean-spiritedness with which he has defended himself and castigated others over a decade makes an impression that’s pretty bleak for the human spirit.”
His career as a dominant bicycle racer was “one big lie” built on doping, the 41-year-old Armstrong said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey aired over two nights last week. He was a “bully” to anyone who threatened his secret of cheating with performance-enhancing drugs and banned transfusions, he said.
Madoff, the New York-based mastermind of the biggest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, was arrested in 2008 and pleaded guilty the following year to cheating investors out of $20 billion in principal. He is serving a 150-year sentence in a federal prison in North Carolina.
Armstrong hasn’t been charged with any crime. In February, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles ended a criminal probe of Armstrong and his racing team without filing charges and without an explanation.
“These are guys who obviously are remarkably selfish, very clever – some would say diabolical – and they hurt a lot of people,” said Daniel Nathan, an associate professor of American Studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Madoff and Armstrong, if they had dinner they’d have a lot to talk about.”
From the mid-1990s until his seventh victory in cycling’s Tour de France in 2005, Armstrong said he used a cocktail of blood-boosting Erythropoietin, or EPO; blood transfusions; and testosterone, all of them banned by the International Cycling Union, known by its French acronym UCI. Doping was common in cycling, and he viewed it as leveling the playing field, Armstrong said in the Winfrey interview.
Armstrong’s doping began early in his racing career, he said, before the testicular cancer that became part of his personal legend. Over the years, many people learned of his secret either as participants or witnesses. Those who divulged what they knew – often years afterward and under oath in legal investigations – took the brunt of his verbal attacks and sometimes lawsuits.
One of them was Betsy Andreu, the wife of former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu. In 2005, both Andreus testified that in 1996 in an Indianapolis hospital where he was being treated for cancer, they heard Armstrong tell a doctor of his doping. The testimony was in connection with a lawsuit Armstrong and his backers filed over withheld bonuses for winning the Tour.
“Soon after our depositions were leaked to the media, there was a dry-up in jobs for Frankie,” Betsy Andreu said in a telephone interview from an airport the day after Armstrong’s televised confession. “Stuff that he had was gone. Future work was lost.”
Armstrong spoke with the Andreus on the telephone before he sat down with Winfrey on Jan. 14, he said in the interview. He refused to discuss Betsy Andreu’s assertions with Winfrey.
“I don’t understand how he can admit to something so monumental, and when it comes to the hospital room, which is the crux of all of this, he, in my opinion, dropped the ball,” Betsy Andreu said. “So at first I found it admirable, but then it turned to anger. This whole thing is just sad.”
Andreu doesn’t know how much Armstrong’s doping and harassment cost her family because “how do you quantify lost opportunity,” she said. She isn’t considering a lawsuit, she said.
“He is protected, by the First Amendment, to say I’m a crazed nut job, and he should be,” she said. “But he was very smart and never said I lied. So, I can’t.”
Emma O’Reilly, 42, worked on Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service cycling team from 1996-2000 as a soigneur, an assistant to the riders responsible for such things as massages, ordering clothing from sponsors and arranging for lodging and food.
She first learned of doping on the team in 1997 and later transported testosterone, disposed of used syringes at Armstrong’s request and once met him in a McDonald’s parking lot outside of Nice, France, after picking up some pills for the cyclist in Spain, according to her testimony to the U.S. Anti- Doping Agency in October.
O’Reilly resigned in 2000 and didn’t speak out about Armstrong and the team until 2003, when reporter David Walsh of the Sunday Times of London contacted her, she said. O’Reilly cooperated with Walsh for his 2006 book “L.A. Confidentiel,” published in French, and was paid 5,000 pounds, she said in testimony to USADA, according to the Colorado Springs, Colorado- based organization’s report.
“Once my involvement in the project became known, Lance wasted no time attacking me and my reputation,” O’Reilly said in her testimony. “Lance also tried to discredit me by publicly referring to me as a prostitute and an alcoholic.”
O’Reilly’s testimony was accurate, Armstrong told Winfrey. At the time, he said, he “was on the attack.”
“She’s one of these people that I have to apologize to,” Armstrong said. “She’s one of these people that got run over, got bullied.”
Armstrong then was asked whether he had ever sued O’Reilly.
“To be honest, Oprah, we sued so many people I don’t even – I’m sure we did,” he said.
Lawsuits falsely accusing people like O’Reilly of lying “were not just frivolous cases, but essentially abuse-of- process cases,” said Alan Milstein, a lawyer with Sherman Silverstein in Moorestown, N.J., who specializes in sports law. “It doesn’t make lawyers look good. I certainly cringed when I heard what he had done. It’s one thing to sue the Sunday Times. They can handle it.”
Mark Fabiani, one of Armstrong’s attorneys, declined to comment on Milstein’s assertions, saying in an e-mail that Armstrong’s legal team is “continuing to let Lance’s interview speak for itself.”
Armstrong sued the newspaper after it published excerpts of Walsh’s book, and he obtained a $1.5 million settlement in 2006. USADA published a 1,000-page report in October that said Armstrong’s career was “fueled start to finish by doping.” After that, the Sunday Times sued Armstrong to recoup the settlement.
The Sunday Times’s legal expenses were probably more than $500,000, and smaller cases like O’Reilly’s might have cost $100,000 to defend, Milstein said.
The Armstrong confession probably will fuel a new round of litigation, some of it to reverse the results of previous lawsuits.
In 2004, Armstrong and Tailwind Sports, the owner of the U.S. Postal Service team, sued SCA Promotions Inc. The Dallas- based company contracted to cover Armstrong’s bonuses for winning the Tour from 2002 to 2004. The suit, over SCA’s refusal to provide $5 million in bonuses because of doping allegations, was settled in 2006. SCA agreed to pay the $5 million plus $2.5 million in interest and legal fees.
Now SCA may sue Armstrong and Tailwind, founded by the Silicon Valley financier Thomas Weisel, for $12 million, the company said in October. SCA planned to make a decision on filing suit over the weekend, the New York Times reported, citing lawyer Jeffrey M. Tillotson. Tillotson didn’t return an email Monday seeking comment on the Times report.
Armstrong and Weisel, who has denied knowledge of Armstrong’s doping, also face a federal whistle-blower lawsuit by Floyd Landis, a former cycling teammate who admitted his own doping and accused Armstrong. The suit, under the Civil War-era False Claims Act, aims to get U.S. Postal Service sponsorship money back from Armstrong’s former team. Landis could collect a percentage of any recovery under the law. The Justice Department may join the suit as a plaintiff.
Armstrong’s competitive attitude turned “ruthless and relentless and win-at-all-costs” after his cancer diagnosis, he told Winfrey. That posture would be consistent with the culture of sports in ancient Greece, said Deane Lamont, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California who teaches sports history.
In 776 B.C. when competition began in Olympia, an athlete’s goal was clear: to win at all costs, just as in war, Lamont said. The ancient games were rife with bribery, violence and athletes consuming substances to improve performance, he said.
Nike Inc., named with the Greek word for victory, was Armstrong’s biggest sponsor, paying him $40 million for endorsements since 1996, ESPN reported in October, citing an unidentified person. Brian Strong, a Nike spokesman, said in an email that the company doesn’t comment on contracts. A week after the USADA doping report on Oct. 10, the Beaverton, Ore., maker of sporting goods dropped Armstrong. Other sponsors followed within hours, including Luxottica Group’s Oakley Inc., Anheuser-Busch InBev, Trek Bicycle Corp., and energy supplement makers FRS and Honey Stinger.
“I’ve certainly lost all future income,” Armstrong told Winfrey. “That was a $75 million day. Gone. Gone, and probably never coming back.”
FRS was hurt, too, according to Fred Harman, managing partner of Oak Investment Partners, the closely held company’s majority owner. The Foster City, Calif.-based nutrition company’s products were based on research on what helped cancer patients regain energy. It was one of more than 2,000 energy products when Armstrong took an ownership stake, Harman said.
“We would not have invested in this company had it not been for the Lance Armstrong relationship,” Harman said in a telephone interview. “Very regrettably, later we find out that all these allegations prove to be true. It clearly is a step backwards for the company that we’re regrouping from.”
Armstrong might have suffered the biggest fall from grace of any athlete, according to Jim Andrews, senior vice president of content strategy at IEG, a sponsorship consultant.
“His whole story, overcoming cancer, starting the foundation to help others, he built that up so he was extremely high,” Andrews said in a telephone interview. “That’s why the fall was so far and so fast.”
In June 2008, Armstrong ranked in the top 100 in trust, influence and endorsement effectiveness, according to the Davie Brown Index of U.S. celebrities. By last November, he was listed as 2,625th in trust, 1,944th in influence and 2,626th in endorsement effectiveness.
Fundraising by Livestrong, the anti-cancer foundation that Armstrong set up in 1997, may be hurt by his confession. The cyclist stepped down as chairman Oct. 17 and resigned from the board Nov. 12. In an annual survey published in 2011, Livestrong ranked 343rd among the top 400 charities in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list. In 2012, it fell out of the rankings, though it remains the largest athlete-founded charity, according to the Chronicle. Livestrong has raised $470 million since inception, according to its website.
In an email to supporters on Jan. 18, the day Armstrong’s interview with Winfrey began airing, Livestrong Chief Executive Officer Doug Ulman said, “Livestrong was never about Lance.” Rather, he wrote, “It’s about you and millions of other people who have come together to fight until no cancer survivor has to confront these challenges alone.”
The organization must be concerned with sustaining financial support, said Doug White, adjunct professor of nonprofit governance at Columbia University in New York. Livestrong needs to further distance itself from its founder, he said.
“This is not the kind of ethos you want to have as your mascot, your symbol, your icon at a charitable organization,” White said in a telephone interview.
Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for Livestrong, didn’t return an e-mail yesterday seeking reaction to White’s comments.
Five hours after Armstrong’s interview began airing last week, some of his former teammates were back at work at their preseason training camp in Playa de Albir, a seaside resort near Alicante, Spain. About a dozen staff remain from the 2010 team that had Armstrong on its 30-rider roster.
While RadioShack Corp. and Trek remain as sponsors after severing ties with Armstrong, Nissan Motor Co. withdrew backing last month. With other sponsors such as Dutch lender Rabobank Groep fleeing the sport, riders may see pay cuts, said Gianni Bugno, president of the Association of Professional Cyclists, though he said he didn’t know how much they might lose. A middle-ranked rider was making about 60,000 euros annually last year, according to Brice Feillu, a French cyclist in the 2012 Tour de France.
At 8:30 a.m. after the Winfrey broadcast, mechanics tinkered with the bike of Mathew Busche, 27, a rider from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, who was on the same RadioShack team as Armstrong in 2010. Riders said they slept through the interview broadcast, which began at 3 a.m. local time.
“We can’t lose energy thinking about this,” said Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara. “There are so many other bigger problems in the world.”