Interview: How Damien Ressiot broke the Armstrong story

by Dhananjay  Jan 18, 2013 11:51 IST

#ConnectTheDots   #Cycling   #Damien Ressiot   #Doping   #Lance Armstrong  

This interview was first published on October 30. But it's still relevant considering Armstrong's confession to Oprah Winfrey.

It’s been tough getting to meet Damien Ressiot when the Lance Armstrong story first broke in October. For Ressiot, who works for the French sports daily L’Equipe, has been busy giving interviews to TV and radio stations since the latest revelations on Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal came out.

The reason why Ressiot is being sought after is because he was the first journalist to have reported on Armstrong’s doping allegations based on analytical evidence. This was in August 2005, a month after the American cyclist had won his seventh consecutive Tour title. "I am proud of the story I wrote seven years ago. I also want to thank those few journalists who pursued a similar line vis-à-vis Armstrong’s Tour de France performance," remarked Ressiot, who was finally able to squeeze out time for an interaction with this writer in Paris.

Ressiot’s scoop in the 23 August 2005 edition of L’Equipe was sensational, both in its news value and the manner in which he had procured this information. Having won seven consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005, Armstrong had not only become the greatest cyclist but also one of the biggest sports icons ever. "The fact that he had become a multiple champion after fighting cancer meant his aura spread beyond the sporting world. Though there were whispers and gossip linking Armstrong to performance enhancing drugs, there wasn’t any proof," Ressiot recalled.

Having won seven consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005, Armstrong had not only become the greatest cyclist but also one of the biggest sports icons ever. AP

It was against this backdrop that Ressiot’s report hit the news stands. "Armstrong reacted by saying that the report was false and that the evidence on which I had based my report was fabricated," Ressiot said.   This scoop, regarded as one of the biggest in journalism, was the result of exhaustive investigation, brilliant analysis and cultivation of a crucial source on the part of Ressiot, who, not surprisingly, spends more time with doctors and scientists than interviewing sportsmen or watching sports events.

In fact, writing on doping across different sports is his speciality. "It was one of those rare occasions when everything falls in place. I was able to put the puzzle together," he said. Elaborating on the manner in which he got the story, Ressiot said, "I came to know in November 2004 that a lab on the outskirts of Paris was conducting retroactive tests on some urine samples from the 1999 Tour de France.

"This was being done to improve anti-doping techniques. Since Armstrong had worn the yellow jersey (as the race leader) in the 1999 Tour for a long time, I had a hunch that some of the samples might belong to him. Of course, all the samples were anonymous and the lab results were meant only for research purposes," he said.

Though the samples were anonymous, each sample had a number that was unique to each rider. After some clever detective work, Ressiot was able to find the identity of some of the samples.

"I found that six of them belonging to Armstrong had tested positive for the banned substance EPO," he said. Ressiot, though, couldn’t go ahead with the story as it was based on a single source. "I had the story ready by April 2005. However, I was waiting for confirmation of the same from other sources.

Finally, in August 2005, there were two other sources, which corroborated the information I possessed. That’s when the story was published," he said. Ressiot added that he had prepared himself to be sued by Armstrong. "I knew he had a team of about 20 lawyers. I remember having written that report while informing my own lawyer. I was surprised I was not taken to court," Ressiot said.

Following the publication of the story, the International Cycling Federation (UCI), under pressure from the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) appointed an independent observer who gave a clean chit to Armstrong. "I wasn’t surprised by the decision," Ressiot remarked. Ressiot though wasn’t able to lay hands on any more evidence related to doping since that story. "It was as if there were red lights everywhere. Despite suspicion, it was impossible to get any proof," he said.

Ressiot feels the reason why it was difficult to find more proof was because "the doping protocols were very sophisticated. The doping products were normal but the techniques were ingenious," he said. It is for this reason that Ressiot feels the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA), led by Travis Tygart, has done a sterling job. "My story seven years ago is nothing compared to what USADA has done in bringing out the truth about Armstrong. I think USADA is an example of how all the anti-doping agencies in every country should function," he said.

Despite writing such an explosive story, Ressiot says he never faced any threats or pressure. "Ironically, the only time I felt scared was when I was in Melbourne for the world swimming championships in 2007," he said. In March 2007, Ressiot had written a report suggesting that the analysis of world swimming body (FINA) and Australian anti doping agency on swimmer Ian Thorpe’s urine sample did not match.

Ressiot believes the Armstrong story will have an impact on Tour de France. "However, I feel the Tour will move on. Even previously, riders had been caught doping. But the year after, people still throng streets all over France to watch the spectacle. I firmly believe that the next generation of riders is cleaner," he said.

Ressiot feels stricter punishments for not only athletes but also team officials and authorities themselves should be introduced. "They could act as deterrents against cheats," he said. He said that journalists too should be careful in the manner in which they turn sports achievers into larger-than-life heroes. "Sports persons should not be turned into legends. They are merely good at swinging a bat, kicking a ball or pedalling a bike.

Turning them into superheroes puts pressure on young athletes to maintain or exceed their performance levels at all costs, which then, in many cases, leads to doping," he said. So, being one of the few journalists who always looked at Armstrong’s performances with scepticism, does he feel satisfied after the latest Armstrong revelations? "I have nothing personal against him. It is impossible to be happy about this story as there are many losers in this story.

There were many people who thought he was a good guy. However, the USADA report and the subsequent events prove that it is the end of the story for a very big imposter in sports. At the same time, I hope all those responsible would be found and not just Armstrong," he said.

Ressiot could not help but recount a sense of irony in Armstrong’s fall from grace.

"Funnily enough, he used to donate money to UCI to improve anti-doping techniques," Ressiot remarked with a smile.