Tour de Farce

Lance Armstrong, Thom Weisel, and questions about anti-doping efforts in American cycling

Given the financial and organizational links among Weisel-related entities, it seems reasonable to assume the financier might be irked if USA Cycling officials in his employ did anything to acknowledge drug allegations against Armstrong. Weisel's book mentions his "protégé and friend" Armstrong 100 times. It notes that Weisel's office is dominated by poster-size photographs of the cycling hero. During Armstrong's post-cancer career, Weisel has served as founder, architect, motivator, companion, and sugar daddy for Armstrong's team, according to Weisel's book.

However, Johnson, with all his links to Weisel, Armstrong's primary patron, sees no problem with denouncing the L'Equipe report on behalf of USA Cycling.

"Why would that be a conflict of interest? Explain it to me," Johnson said.

Sure. The USA Cycling Development Foundation is a nonprofit entity set up by Weisel and dedicated to raising money for USA Cycling. The foundation provides around a quarter of USA Cycling's $4 million annual budget, according to the group's IRS filings from 2003, 2002, and 2001. The nonprofit employs Johnson as executive director, the filings say.

The USA Cycling Development Foundation is overseen by a board of directors that includes Armstrong and is presided over by Weisel. Johnson runs the nonprofit out of the same Colorado Springs office as USA Cycling, the governing body.

Weisel is founder and owner of Tailwind Sports, which co-owns Armstrong's new Discovery Channel Team. The team has the retired champion under contract beyond 2006 in a public relations role, Armstrong said during an April press conference transcripted on the team Web site. This role would seem likely to lose significant value in the event of any U.S. anti-drug action involving the superstar.

In his book, Weisel makes clear the connection between Armstrong's reputation and his own financial interests. Armstrong's role as a Tour de France champion and Armstrong himself "make up our brand," Weisel boasts in a chapter on business philosophy that he penned himself.

Though Reuters headlined its story quoting Johnson "USA Cycling lashes out at Armstrong allegations," it would have been just as accurate to say "A Thom Weisel-supported official lashes out at Armstrong allegations harmful to Thom Weisel investments in Armstrong."

A spokeswoman for Weisel said he would not comment for this column.

Johnson and other Armstrong supporters have fretted in print that the discovery of banned chemicals in Lance Armstrong's 1999 urine samples did not follow the official protocol for exposing drug cheating. But the L'Equipereporters certainly followed standard protocol for journalists wishing to get at the truth.

Allegations that Barry Bonds and other Major League Baseball players used banned steroids might not have seen the light of day if it weren't for San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Faiinaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who worked tirelessly to persuade people who had inside information on a federal steroid investigation to bend protocol and leak some of that information. The first time America really confronted the issue of drug use in sports was when Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein wrote that he'd observed in slugger Mark McGwire's locker a bottle of the steroid Androstenedione, which was not then banned by Major League Baseball. This, too, was a horrible violation of protocol, baseball officials, athletes, and fans said back in 1998. Since then, the reporter's been vindicated by events.

"On behalf of the journalism profession, I want to apologize to Steve Wilstein today," wrote Orlando Sentinelsports columnist Mike Bianchi recently, in reference to widespread claims that Wilstein had created a "tabloid-driven controversy."

When I spoke with him last week, Johnson repeated his press message regarding protocol.

"As I've tried to point out, there is a well-established international protocol for handling samples and adjudicating doping cases. We adhere to that protocol and support it. This is not one of those cases," he said. "What you've got to realize is that you've got a publication in a French newspaper. From our perspective, that's not valid."

From the perspective of this particular tabloid journalist, Johnson's statements violate protocol. The fact that Johnson represents a so-called drugs regulator while serving a boss who would be financially harmed by any real drugs regulation invalidates his perspective entirely.

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