Open Mic

Discovery Channel, This Time It's Personal. Lance Armstrong Took Your Brand and Pissed On It In Front Of the Whole World. Doesn't That Bother You? [Blog Entry Updated on Oct. 24, 2012]

Chuck Ross Posted October 18, 2012 at 9:54 AM

It was a warm, muggy day in June, mostly overcast with some drizzle. It was an omen. The day should have been bright, sunny, and one of the best days yet in the close to year and a half that Billy Campbell had been running the Discovery Networks.

For on that Tuesday, June 15, 2004, Campbell and his team were gathered in Discovery’s Silver Spring headquarters with a large contingent of press to announce a huge coup.

Smiling over at Lance Armstrong and his girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, Judith McHale, president and CEO of Discovery Communicatons, presided over the brief announcement made in the packed lobby: The Discovery Channel would become the new title sponsor of five-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling team.

Though Discovery wouldn’t take over the sponsorship until 2005, starting immediately -- less than three weeks before the beginning of the 2004 Tour de France bicycle race -- there would be a Discovery Channel logo on the team’s jerseys.

“Lance is a role model known for determination, integrity and a spirit that never gives up,” McHale told the crowd. “There is no better ambassador for quality and trusted information than Lance Armstrong.”

Armstrong, who flew in from Brussels the night before just to be at the Discovery event, took the mike and briefly said how excited he was to be associated with Discovery.

The exciting announcement event had ignored the 800-pound gorilla in the Discovery lobby that day.

The gorilla was in the form of a book excerpt that had been published two days earlier, on Sunday, June 13, 2004, in L’Express, a French magazine, and in the Sunday Times (of London). The excerpt was from an upcoming book, to be published only in French, titled (in English) “L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong.” It was written, according to Velo News, by an ”award-winning Sunday Times (of London) sports reporter, David Walsh, and Pierre Ballester, a cycling specialist formerly with L’Equippe.”

The Chicago Tribune wrote that “among the more sensational allegations” in the book excerpt that had been published were “a former aide to the U.S. Postal Service team applied makeup to conceal bruises and needle marks on Armstrong’s arms, that he asked her to dispose of used syringes, and that he sent her from France to Spain to pick up 'unspecified medication.'”

According to the coverage of the Discovery event in CableFax, that same Tuesday Armstrong’s lawyers “were bringing libel suits in France and Britain against the authors [of the “L.A. Confidential” book]. ... The legal issues went unmentioned during the excitement of the brief lobby ceremony celebrating Discovery Comm’s multi-year, multi-million $ title sponsorship of Armstrong’s racing team and to-be-defined programming relationship. [However, the legal issues] dominated a media-packed 30 min. Q&A” after the ceremony.

Here are comments Armstrong made during that 30-minute press conference, according to various media accounts written that day:

From the Dallas Morning News: “ ‘I can absolutely confirm the we don’t use doping products,’ Armstrong said. ‘I can also remind everybody here and everybody listening that this is not the first time it’s happened.’"

The Associated Press then reported that Armstrong said, “I heard it in 1999. I heard it in 2002, again in 2003. It happens all the time.”

Back to the Dallas Morning News, which reported that Armstrong added next, “And every time we chose to sit back and let it pass. But we’ve sort of reached a point where we can’t tolerate it anymore, and we’re sick and tired of these allegations and we’re going to do everything we can to fight them."

“They’re untrue,” Armstrong continued, according to The New York Times.

Back to the Dallas Morning News, which wrote that Armstrong then said: “I personally am very frustrated. It’s obviously distracting 2½ weeks before the Tour. But for me, success is the best way to silence accusers.”

The Baltimore Sun wrote that Armstrong “said his attorneys are filing libel suits in England and France against those who have published the allegations. Armstrong’s website says the cyclist is seeking ‘an injunction and substantial damages’ in London against co-author David Walsh and his newspaper, the Sunday Times.”

Walsh had told the International Herald Tribune about the book, “It’s all circumstantial evidence. We don’t actually prove anything. We just set out the facts and let the reader decide for himself about the truth. But we do give names for every accusation.”

In an interview with Velo News, Walsh was asked whether he was surprised at how quickly Armstrong had pursued legal action. “Not at all,” Walsh answered. “We stand by everything in the book. He is suing the messengers. But the real source of angst for Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team are the people who delivered the testimony in this book.”

During the Silver Spring press conference, The New York Times said, Armstrong “reiterated that he was clean. ‘I think the people who know cycling know we’re the most passionate, fanatic, crazy team, in the right way,’ he said. ‘We spend more time on training, and on legal methods, than anybody else.’“

During the press conference Armstrong spoke about the importance of making a deal with Discovery to sponsor the cycling team. Reported The New York Times: “‘It was very important to have this deal done now,’ Amstrong said. ‘The Tour de France is the granddaddy of them all but it’s also the place where riders showcase their best skills. If we didn’t have Discovery, then I would have had guys at the Tour think they might not be my teammates any longer.’ ... Armstrong said that he would not have won the Tour de France races without the support of the Postal Service. He said he also wondered to himself: ‘If we didn’t find a new partner, would I retire? I’m glad I don’t have to retire. I’m glad I’ll be around for a year, maybe two.’“

Said Discovery’s Billy Campbell, according to The New York Times, “Lance and the team will also serve as ambassadors for Discovery in the U.S. and the world.”

Jeff Barker, who covered the Discovery announcement and Armstrong press conference for the Baltimore Sun, spoke to a Discovery spokesperson, who told him that Discovery knew about the book and the charges it contained “before agreeing to team with Armstrong.” According to what Barker wrote, the Discovery spokesperson said, “It was all out on the table. We knew about the book coming out when we were pulling this partnership together. Nothing has changed.”

A little over a month after the Discovery press conference Armstrong won his 6th Tour de France on Sunday, July 25, 2004. And he indeed wore a jersey emblazoned with the logos of both the U.S. Postal Service and future sponsor Discovery Channel.

The next day Armstrong’s hometown newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, ran a story titled “Six, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll: Stories Away From the Tour de France Route.” An excerpt: “Cheers and jeers. Armstrong heard it all on the way up L-Alpe d’Huez. Particularly vocal were German fans, who heckled Armstrong up the mountain. Among the words of encouragement spray-painted on the road were plenty of less flattering statements. ‘Lance Sucks’ read one. Another fan suggested that Armstrong’s cycling prowess isn’t entirely natural, spraying ‘EPOstal’ on the landscape to suggest his team was relying on banned blood booster EPO. ‘That’s no class: I think we’d all agree,’ Armstrong said.’“

Six months later, in January 2005, Armstrong was interviewed on NPR, where he was asked again about doping, and denied it.

In June, 2005, as Armstrong was about to race for this 7th consecutive Tour de France win, Discovery was airing Armstrong specials such as “The Science of Lance Armstrong” and the five-part “Chasing Lance: 100 Days to the Tour."

At the same time a new book about Armstrong was published: "Lance Armstrong’s War: One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France,” by Daniel Coyle. Coyle interviewed Armstrong for the book.

In the book Coyle reports on the case both for and against Armstrong doping.

Coyle also writes in the book, reported the Anchorage Daily News at the time, what he thinks is the public’s biggest misconception about Armstrong: “That he’s a nice guy, a kind of saint. He’s definitely smart, charismatic, and he does a lot of good works, especially in the cancer community. But he’s not about being nice; he’s about being first, especially in the Tour de France. ‘Animalistic‘ is how his best friend puts it.”

And, the Anchorage paper noted, Coyle wrote this about Armstrong’s inner circle: that Armstrong says he is only interested in “‘having friends who will kill for me.’ Outside that circle, you have what Armstrong calls the Trolls -- people in the media and cycling who want to bring him down. The borderline is very clear, and he patrols it constantly. You’re in or you’re out.”

The next month, in July 2005, Armstrong won his 7th consecutive Tour de France race. After he won Armstrong announced his retirement from professional cycling.

For the year 2005 I typed into Factiva, a service that indexes newspaper and magazine articles, the words “Lance Armstrong” and “doping” and more than 900 articles came up. I didn’t have time to read most of them. I did not do that same search for any subsequent years.

In February 2007, the Associated Press ran a story that said Discovery would drop its sponsorship of the pro cycling team at the end of the 2007 season. That coincided with the end of the three-year deal Discovery executive Billy Campbell had made with the team.

It also coincided with a management shakeup at Discovery that saw Campbell leaving the company.

That Discovery got in into bed with Armstrong despite knowing the various accusations about his doping is not surprising. Millions of us believed Armstrong’s denials at the time.

I emailed a spokesperson at Discovery the other day this email:

In light of the big report made public on Wednesday by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) about Lance Armstrong, I was wondering what comment or comments Discovery has.

As you know, the report was pretty tough on Armstrong, claiming that, according to the USADA, that Armstrong used banned substances. Seemingly the most credible accusations come from George Hincapie, a former teammate of Armstrong's who Armstrong has praised in the past as a very loyal and good friend. Like Armstrong, Hincapie never failed a drug test. But in Hincapie's affidavit to the USADA he says both himself and Armstrong used banned substances. Hincapie says that includes during the 2005 Tour de France.

Given that in 2005 Armstrong won the Tour de France under the banner of the Discovery Channel Team, what does Discovery have to say about all of these detailed allegations made against Armstrong this week?

Is Discovery standing behind Armstrong? Or? Is Discovery going to do any investigation itself into these allegations, since it is alleged that a lot of this went on when Discovery was sponsoring the team? Has Discovery investigated any of this in the past?

You get the picture.

Please let me know if there's someone at Discovery I should interview over phone about this, and/or any statement or statements Discovery has to make about this.

She emailed back that she didn’t think the company had a comment, and her boss confirmed that Discovery would have no comment.

I wrote back, “Really? No comment? I very much appreciate the fast response … but I'm very surprised, given the seriousness of the charges against Armstrong.”

I noted that the USADA had written that “The achievements of the U.S. Postal Service pro cycling team, which Armstrong led, were accomplished through a massive team doping scheme more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history.”

I said that one could just as easily substitute the words “Discovery Channel pro cycling team” in that sentence. I said if Discovery changes its mind and wants to comment, to let me know.

I’ve heard nothing back. Yesterday Nike, which was a major sponsor of Armstrong, released a statement saying: “Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him. Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner.”

I’m disappointed about the deafening silence from 1 Discovery Place in Silver Spring. I’ve long liked and respected Discovery founder and Chairman John Hendricks.

In an article last year in The Sunday Times (of London) David Walsh (who co-wrote that “LA. Confidential” book about Armstrong) wrote: “Emails between Armstrong and John Hendricks, founder of Discovery, are believed to exist containing Armstrong’s reassurances to his main sponsor at the time that the team did not, and had not doped.”

Last year, as doping allegations again piled up against Armstrong, his close friend Bono reportedly posted this tweet to Armstrong:

“Sometimes my friend, the lie is ugly, but the truth is unbearable.” Who knows how that resonated with Armstrong.

John Hendricks, it’s time to go public. It’s time to say SOMETHING about how you feel.#

Update: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012: Today, 12 days after I asked Discovery if they would comment about the doping allegations made against Lance Armstrong by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and they had replied "No comment," they have posted the following statement on the Discovery Communications corporate website:

Discovery Communications' Statement on Lance Armstrong

"Discovery Communications is deeply troubled by the information presented by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency concerning Lance Armstrong and his professional cycling team. The company has had no relationship with Lance Armstrong or the team since 2007, and the findings contradict everything Lance and his management team committed to the company. As a mission-driven organization, Discovery always strives for the highest level of integrity, quality and trust in everything that we do. The report by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency clearly indicates that Lance Armstrong failed to share our standard."