By Roxanna Scott
More than three million people watched as Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he was a liar and a cheat.
Six months later, AWSM conference attendees will have a chance to go behind the scenes with three women who have very different roles in sports media, but whose work brought them to the center of one of the biggest stories in the past year.
Meet Annie Skinner, communications manager at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the organization responsible for investigating Armstrong’s illegal doping. She will be joined by Juliet Macur, an award-winning journalist for the New York Times, who broke many stories about the doping culture in cycling and allegations that Armstrong cheated. Also on the panel — which takes place Saturday, June 22 — is Marya Pongrace, who works with one of the world’s top cycling teams, Garmin-Sharp. Several riders on the team testified about Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs.
“It’s a really interesting topic from the perspective … that idea that sport in general has become win at all costs.” — Annie Skinner
Winfrey’s interview with Armstrong came in January, three months after USADA released more than a thousand pages of evidence that he cheated to win the Tour de France a record seven times.
Skinner works closely with USADA CEO Travis Tygart, the key figure behind the Armstrong investigation. (Tygart last spoke to AWSM members at the 2007 convention in Dallas.) Skinner says the Arizona panel will provide “an interesting opportunity to look at it from a couple of different angles. From the anti-doping perspective and what it’s like to cover an ongoing, very in-depth, complicated story.”
It’s a story that Macur, one of the world’s top media experts in doping in sport, has covered for the New York Times since 2005.
She will address the challenges of covering a story that few people wanted to believe because of Armstrong’s image as an American champion and philanthropist.
“Let’s just say that writing about Armstrong’s doping didn’t exactly make me the most popular journalist around,” Macur said. “I can’t tell you how many pieces of hate mail I received about my coverage. People who had been inspired by him and his cancer fight didn’t want to believe that their hero was a boldface cheater and liar. But as it turned out, he was.”
As director of communications, Pongrace handles media requests and public relations for the Garmin-Sharp team. Three Garmin riders — Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie — were among Armstrong’s former teammates who testified about their own doping under Armstrong’s influence. Team CEO and general manager Jonathan Vaughters also came clean about his doping and was a key witness who testified about his days with Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service team.
Danielson, Vande Velde and Zabriskie said they joined Slipstream Sports, which was built with a focus on clean sport, to escape the doping that was rampant in the sport. The team had pioneered an independent internal anti-doping system and also had the first no-needle policy in pro cycling.
Skinner hopes the three panelists can share some of the lessons and discoveries they made along the way.
“It’s a really interesting topic from the perspective … that idea that sport in general has become win at all costs,” Skinner said. “We know that at USADA, doping is one symptom of the bigger ethical issue.”