Video: Tour de Controversy
updated 8/25/2005 12:31:23 PM ET 2005-08-25T16:31:23

French newspaper L'Equipe says Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs in 1999.  Armstrong says the report is false.  Earlier this week, Tour de France Director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the report that six urine samples Armstrong provided during his first tour win in 1999 tested positive for the red blood cell-booster EPO had convinced him the cyclist had cheated.

"The ball is now in his court," Leblanc told L'Equipe. "Why, how, by whom? He owes explanations to us and to everyone who follows the Tour. Today, what L'Equipe revealed shows me that I was fooled. We were all fooled."

This statement inspired Armstrong to strike back. On Wednesday, he responded to the accusations via conference call, telling reporters "This has been a long, love-hate relationship between myself and the French."

Later Wednesday, MSNBC's Chris Matthews talked about the controversy with two reporters who have covered Armstrong's triumphs -- Alan Abramson of the Los Angeles Times, and Sal Ruibal of USA Today.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS:  Alan Abrahamson writes about international sports for "The Los Angeles Times."  He's interviewed Lance Armstrong, asked him about doping and watched him win the Tour de France last month.  Sal Ruibal covers sports for ""USA Today."

Let me go to Alan first. What are we to make of this charge by "L'Equipe," the French newspaper, that Lance Armstrong tested positively for dope, performance-enhancing drugs back in '99? 

ALAN ABRAHAMSON, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES":  I think we all first really need to understand that professional cycling is awash in rumors of just this sort of sort.  And Lance Armstrong has been fending off just these kinds of rumors for years and years. 
But this is without question the most interesting of the allegations, to put it lightly, against Lance. 

MATTHEWS:  Should we believe it? 

ABRAHAMSON:  Well, it all depends on what you think about documents and what you think about incomplete documents.  These documents purport to show that doping control samples match up to Lance and doping control forms that he signed. 

But they could never, ever stand up in a court of law for a lot of procedural and technical reasons.  But, still, documents are documents.  It is not of he said/she said, I saw/he saw.  Documents are documents.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Sal. Why do you think, why are we getting this kind of information six years late? 

SAL RUIBAL, "USA TODAY":  Well, the study wasn't really an in-competition test.  It was a scientific study designed to test, ironically, the accuracy of the EPO test itself.  And they happened to use the '99 tour urine samples for that study. 

And "L'Equipe" was able to connect the dots between some of those samples and Lance's previous samples.  So, in that sense, I don't think it really tell us that much, because, without A and B samples, legally, it doesn't really mean much.  In terms of his reputation, yes, it is huge. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let's talk about that reputation issue.  In every American barroom tonight, it may have already started, there's a buzz out there.  The French are jealous.  We won their award.  They're so proud of the Tour de France.  An American, Lance Armstrong, seven straight times.   Is it the humiliation of France that is driving this story or is it objective journalism, Alan? 

ABRAHAMSON:  Oh, I don't think the French are out to get us or Lance Armstrong in retribution for, say, freedom fries or anything like that.


ABRAHAMSON:  I mean, I think "L'Equipe" is a serious, respected newspaper and they're out to do their job. 

MATTHEWS:  Sal, is that your assessment?  It is a clean?  It is a clean call?  It's not home cooking.  It is not French -what's the word? ... Chauvinism, French chauvinism, I think is the right word. 

RUIBAL:  I think, in this case, maybe, there might be a bit of that, because French cycling is in a serious decline. 

Not only are they not winning the Tour de France.  They're not winning anything.  And it is one of the top sports in the country.  It is part of their national identity.  And there may be some impulsion behind this, because the French cycling officials have been getting a lot of heat about their poor performance. 

Even Kazakhstan has surpassed France as a cycling power.  So, they're in trouble there as well.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I was recalling, Alan, the story a couple years ago with regard to the skating in the Olympics, when there was a French official who was caught playing some interesting strategic game and cheating there.  It smacks of that to me. 

ABRAHAMSON:  Well, I don't know. 

I mean, I think that's an interesting and maybe even a compelling argument.  But to say that the French authorities are out to get Lance Armstrong just because of a skating scandal in Salt Lake seems to be a bit of a stretch.  I don't doubt that there's been friction between the two countries.  There's no question there's been friction over Iraq and other issues. 
But to say that that directly leads "L'Equipe," which has sources up the wazoo in every sporting edifice in France... to say that therefore they're going to get Lance Armstrong, to me, that's a bit of a stretch. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I have to say ...  it hurts me, because I'm so proud of Lance Armstrong.  I think he's such a great athlete.  And I still think, how can anybody take away from any of his greatness for winning seven straight?  That must be one hell of a pill he took back seven years ago to have that kind of power.  I'm just kidding, because I think it couldn't possibly be that. 

... The same ownership that owns the Tour de France also owns this newspaper, "L'Equipe."  If the newspaper story is true, that drugs were involved in the success of Lance Armstrong in the early going, in the first victory in the Tour de France in '99, why is not the - why haven't the ownership of the Tour de France gone after him and tried to take away his medal? 
RUIBAL:  Well, I don't think, in this case, they can take it back.  They've said they might take sanctions, but part of the agreement with using those samples was that no enforcement activity could be taken. 

The real problem with the situation is that there's not enough evidence to prove that Lance is a doper and that he doesn't have enough evidence to clear himself.  So, in this case, if you love Lance, you are still going to love Lance.  If you don't like Lance, you are not going to like him.  And that goes for the folks at the Tour de France.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Alan, do you have any sense, is there any arbiter who could come through here, like a fairy godfather or something, come in here and just solve this problem, so this is clearing his record or condemning him one way or the other, a clean verdict?
ABRAHAMSON:  No. Lance Armstrong is faced with one of the most difficult prospects any athlete or anybody could ever face.  And that is proving a negative.  And the negative is, I never used dope.  I mean, how do you go about doing that?  I mean, it is almost impossible.  And that is the dilemma he's facing. 

I mean, it is really very difficult for him.  And I understand full well why he finds it exasperating. 

MATTHEWS:  But, in sports, we've been through this the last couple months, of course, and we will again, with baseball, people like Canseco saying never, never, never, and then, all of sudden, you got evidence and then things begin to develop. 

Isn't there any way - -you guys agree, Sal and Alan, that you cannot prove you didn't use drugs in this case.  In other words, Lance Armstrong will have this on his bio -- his obit, probably, when he dies. 

RUIBAL:  But I think it will be a small part of it, because he transcends sports.  His cancer story is inspirational for people who don't even know how many wheels there are on a bicycle. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Let me ask you, Sal, it seems to me, watching the Tour de France, how many miles is it? 

RUIBAL:  It's about 2,500 miles. 

MATTHEWS:  Twenty-five hundred miles.  It is about heart, as we say in sports.  It is about guts.  It is about mind discipline, keeping your focus.  It is about strategy.  It is about, I guess, to some extent, although he doesn't say, about the bike.  Would drugs enhance the performance over that amount of time? 

RUIBAL:  Oh, definitely, especially a drug like EPO.

MATTHEWS:  It would?  How long does it last? 

RUIBAL:  For months and months, really, because what it does is, it develops more red blood cells in your body to carry oxygen. 

It dissipates from the body within 48 hours, so there's no trace of it after that.  So, in terms of, you're going to use a drug for performance enhancing, it is probably close to being the perfect one. 

MATTHEWS:  Then just to clear the air for our audience tonight, there has been testing in the last six years and there's evidence - does he have any evidence to say, I haven't used drugs in those more recent years, Sal? 

RUIBAL:  Well, the only thing he can say is, I haven't flunked a drug test. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that's enough.

RUIBAL:  Yes, so far, all he can say is, you only have half of a drug test.  In order to be official, it has to be both an A and a B sample.  They only have a B sample.  And, legally, that's not enough. 

MATTHEWS:  Alan, do we have positive news or positive evidence that he hasn't used drugs?  Can we say tonight that, although there may be evidence from-that's been presented of partial results of a test back in '99, that, over the past seven years, there's no-there's no real evidence that he's cheated? 

ABRAHAMSON:  The problem is, this is an area that is, as I say, rife with suspicion and rumor and innuendo. 

And Lance is facing the most difficult prospect of all time, prove - he says, I didn't do it.  And everyone says, prove it.  And he says, well, how do I prove it?  I'm clean.  I mean, I'm supposed to walk out on the street or on the sand and go, I didn't do it?  I mean, it's almost impossible for him to do this. 

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