By Maria Guardado
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — After winning seven Tour de France titles and triumphing over cancer, Lance Armstrong built himself into an inspiring American icon. But this heroic image shattered amid revelations that Armstrong helped mastermind a sophisticated doping ring during his time with the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team and abused performance-enhancing drugs throughout his decorated career.
Among the witnesses to Armstrong’s fall from grace were three women who observed the story from different perspectives. They shared their insights at the AWSM convention during a Saturday afternoon panel discussion, “A look inside the Lance Armstrong case.”
Juliet Macur began covering doping in cycling shortly after joining The New York Times in 2004. Though she was initially unfamiliar with the sport, she took over the beat after news broke that Tyler Hamilton had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics. Since then, Macur has continued to report on doping scandals in cycling.
After more riders, including Floyd Landis, tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, the evidence increasingly suggested doping was widespread and had become embedded in the culture of the sport. Still, Armstrong vehemently denied all cheating accusations leveled against him, and he crushed anyone who opposed him. If journalists wrote unflattering articles, Armstrong would cut off their access to him or question their credibility, creating major challenges for reporters such as Macur who sought to uncover the truth.
“He’s really good at spinning his story and pushing his narrative forward,” Macur said. “He was really good at being a bully to the media.”
Melinda Travis, the CEO of PRO Sports Communications, saw the story unravel closer to an athlete’s perspective. Her firm represented Hamilton, who was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury and served as a key witness during the federal investigation against Armstrong. Hamilton later broke the sport’s code of silence by appearing on the CBS investigative show “60 Minutes” in May 2011 to come clean about cycling’s doping epidemic.
Two months before Hamilton’s interview aired, Annie Skinner had joined the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as the organization’s media relations manager. After the revelations aired, Skinner was tasked with handling a flood of media requests, which remained steady after the federal government dropped its investigation and allowed USADA to resume its own investigation of Armstrong.
Skinner stressed that high-profile cases such as these showcase the importance of maintaining professional relationships between reporters and public relations personnel.
“People that call me and interact with me on a regular basis and have always been professional with me are the people that are first on your mind to get a call back,” she said.
After USADA concluded its investigation in October 2012, Armstrong received a lifetime ban from professional cycling and was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles.
All three women said they walked away from the experience having learned key lessons, particularly in dealing with stories and truths that people may not want to hear.
“Hopefully, the stories that I’ve written on all this stuff help sports in the long term and maybe teach people that your heroes are not exactly who you think they are,” Macur said.