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Sports Chat: Will Armstrong Fans Continue Support?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.


SISTER WYNONNA CARR: (Singing) Life is a ball game, being played each day...

MARTIN: Lance Armstrong's reputation took another beating last week. Nike officially distanced itself from the athlete, and Armstrong stepped down as chairman of Livestrong, his cancer foundation. All of that came after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency dropped a mountain of evidence documenting Armstrong's use of performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong still denies those charges. NPR's Mike Pesca is with us for the last word on how the media has covered this story from the beginning. Mike, take us through the history of all of this. How was Lance Armstrong covered when he first started winning all these races?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Right. Well, you have to remember that even though Greg Lemond won a couple of Tours de France in the early '90s, no one was really covering road racing in the United States in a real way - not the popular press before Lance Armstrong came onto the scene. And when he did come onto the scene, he had beaten cancer and it was a great story. So, they covered him as a hero. He was made the sportsman of the year in Sports Illustrated magazine, and Rick Riley called him an all-American hero, world-famous celebrity, a miracle man. And as far as doping, any whiff of that was just sort of dismissed, written off as more fuel to the fire. They would always say he's passed every test and you could barely see a mention that, for instance, when Lance first won the Tour de France, there wasn't even a test for EPO, so that context was missing in almost all the coverage.

MARTIN: OK. So, did that continue, like late-'90s? There are more allegations that are now popping up in the sport writ large.

PESCA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, by 2006, you know, remember, right before that, Tour de France, like, all these great riders were eliminated. It was scandal had descended on the sport, but not on Lance. But there were a couple of big developments. In 2004, an Irish journalist co-wrote a book, which laid out the case against Armstrong. Much of the book, if not all of the book, has been confirmed by this latest USADA report. But there were a couple of stories from an American media person's perspective with that book. One, it was only written in French, never in English. Part of the reason was Lance Armstrong didn't want it published in English. Also, the author was sued in a British court, and the suit was successful. But you add it all up and people were still a bit unwilling to touch the story. The hero who beat cancer was the much better story. There were some changes. For instance, Sports Illustrated, in 2007 I'd say, Austin Murphy, who covered the Tour de France, kind of turned around. He surveyed the mountain of evidence and he came to become really suspicious of Lance. But it wasn't true everywhere. You know, in 2005, he hosted the ESPY Awards and there was one skit on ESPN, the premise, which was supposed to be this huge farce, was that Lance Armstrong was a jerk and a bully. And it got a lot of laughs. How could our hero be that?

MARTIN: But the mainstream press - was there ever a moment in this story when everybody changed their mind? Everybody started thinking about these allegations more seriously in connection to Armstrong?

PESCA: Yeah. I think that more and more, but to this very prominent members of the media, who have been covering Armstrong his whole career, still support him. You know, Sally Jenkins, who co-wrote Lance Armstrong's book, "It's Not About the Bike," in 2000 - who's a preeminent journalist, she writes for the Washington Post - a couple of months ago, she said Lance Armstrong is a good man. There's nothing I could learn about him short of murder that would alter my opinion on that. And she mainly criticized the process. So, some journalists who've covered this have, you know, called these types of journalists the dead-enders or the holdouts. But I do have to say, since that mountain of evidence, as you described it, has dropped, there hasn't been the kind of clamor that we even saw a few months ago to Lance's side.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.


CARR: (Singing) ...he's waiting for you there. Well, you know life is a ball game, but you've got to play it fair. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.