Phil Liggett: 'I had no reason not to believe Lance'
The 'voice of cycling' on deception, vendettas and the fall of a champion
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 tomorrow – and defended him publicly as the allegations mounted that the rider had only achieved so much with the aid of a wide-scale doping programme. Now Phil Liggett, the voice of cycling in this country, accepts that the man he placed on a pedestal deserves to be hauled down from it.
Liggett, who has commentated on 40 Tours, including the moment Bradley Wiggins secured a first British win this summer, has been criticised for being an unapologetic defender of Armstrong, but the sheer weight of evidence – the US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) report runs to 1,000 pages including testimony from 11 of his former team-mates – 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 didn't know it was going on.
"I'm not a friend of Lance's 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 Friday Armstrong spoke in public for the first time since the Usada evidence was revealed, addressing 1,500 people 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, though he denies having any business dealings with him, as has previously been reported.
"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 have pursued Armstrong almost as a vendetta, a view regularly floated within the American's circle.
"I think Usada only wanted one man – they wanted to bring down Lance Armstrong and everyone else has come down with him," he said.
Tomorrow, 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 for those dark days.
"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 (Wada) and Usada] because… they are jealously guarding their corner."
One course of action Liggett believes should happen is for the UCI to cut their 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."
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