Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, but he still has at least one supporter.
“My hat is in Lance’s corner,” says Victoria Gotti, widow of John Gotti, the late mob boss.
But Victoria Gotti’s sympathy for Armstrong has nothing to do with cycling. She is not one of us who continued riding a bicycle past childhood.
“Now it’s a Harley,” she jokes.
Her declaration of support came after a friend asked her if she happened to notice that nobody is calling Armstrong a racketeer even though he is alleged by his former teammates to have smuggled drugs and used banned substances to make millions and pressured witnesses and corrupted officials. His cycling crew even used a Mafia word to describe the rule Armstrong allegedly insisted upon when the official rules meant nothing.
“Omertà,” former teammate Frankie Andreu says in a sworn statement. “The code of silence.”
Victoria Gotti responded as someone whose son, John Gotti, Jr., was hounded by zealous prosecutors using informers to put him through four trials before they finally gave up. Her husband had already been sent away for life on the testimony of a turncoat who essentially walked on 27 murders in exchange for his testimony.
“Shame,” Victoria Gotti says.
The repeated attempts to convict her son seemed to her to be less prosecution than persecution. She notes, “I am a kid abandoned by my father and suffered most of my life over my parents’ lack of ‘parenting skills.’” She says she “made up my mind long ago my children would never suffer as I did.”
As a result, Gotti has a reflexive sympathy for others faced by onetime comrades turned accusers. She no doubt would become all the more sympathetic if Armstrong ends up being prosecuted.
Many of the rest of us have to wonder why Armstrong has not been indicted already for some kind of racketeering. More than a dozen witnesses have broken omertà to file sworn statements with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency describing the alleged use of banned performance-enhancing substances by him and his team to garner millions in bonuses and sponsorships. The team is said to have partly defrayed the cost of the drugs by selling bicycles provided by sponsors.
Most of the races were beyond the reach of American law. And there is some question as to whether doping before a race is criminal fraud in the same sense as raising money for a bogus defense fund.
In their sworn statements to the USADA, witnesses also speak of officials being convinced to look the other way. Former teammate Floyd Landis says in a sworn statement that Armstrong told him of bribing a top cycling official after he tested positive for a banned substance the month before the 2002 Tour de France. Armstrong won that race for a fourth time.
Landis himself tested positive after winning the 2006 Tour de France with another team. He had by then left Armstrong’s team. Armstrong nonetheless urged him to maintain omertà, Landis says in his statement.
“I received a call on my cellphone from Armstrong, who instructed me, if I was ever asked if I had ever used performance-enhancing drugs, to answer ‘absolutely not,’” Landis reports.
Landis notes in his statement that this is the same Armstrong who once allegedly handed him an entire box of the banned-enhancing drug EPO “in full view of his then-wife and three children.”
Among the more disturbing allegations against Armstrong is that even while he was pressuring others to maintain omertà, he sicced the drug testers on two cyclists he viewed as serious threats in 2004 season. One of the two, Tyler Hamilton, reports in his statement that he received a letter from the testing agency dated that same day warning him that “we will give special attention to your monitoring during the 2004 season.”
Nobody suggests that drugs were not already entrenched in professional cycling when Armstrong first arrived on the scene. Former teammate George Hincapie recalls in his statement returning with a “very upset” Armstrong from a race in Italy in 1995 where they had been “crushed.”
“As we drove home, Lance said, in substance, that ‘this is bulls—t. People are using stuff’ and ‘we are getting killed,’” Hincapie says in the statement. “He said, in substance, that he did not want to get crushed anymore and something needed to be done. I understood that he meant the team needed to get on EPO.”
In 1996 Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer and admitted to the University of Indiana Hospital. Those who visited him there included teammate Frankie Andreu and his fiancée, Betsy. She recalls in her statement that two men in white coats came in and inquired if Armstrong had ever taken performance-enhancing drugs.
“Lance responded that he had taken EPO, testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone, and steroids,” she says.
She remembers being very upset.
“Lance’s words about using enhancing drugs shocked me,” she says. “I could not believe what I was hearing and found it very upsetting. Until this time I was not aware that any of the guys on Frankie’s team used drugs.”
She adds, “As soon as we left, I immediately told Frankie, ‘I’m not f--king marrying you if you’re doing that s--t; that’s how he got cancer!’”
Researchers are not at all sure that the drugs triggered Armstrong’s cancer, but witnesses say the health effects remained a worry for the team members’ wives and girlfriends. Betsy Andreu went ahead and married Frankie Andreu even though it turned out that he too had begun taking the drugs.
“You have to get serious,” she quotes Armstrong as having told her husband.
Witnesses say in the USADA’s report that Armstrong pressured anyone who was reluctant to join in, including a young cyclist named David Zabriskie, who had vowed never to take drugs because he had seen what addiction did to his father.
“I felt cornered,” Zabriskie recalls in his statement. “I had pursued cycling to escape a home life torn apart by drugs and I was faced with this.”
Armstrong is said to have become abusive toward a French cyclist who had become outspoken against drug use, according to the report.
“Lance frequently made fun of him in a very merciless and venomous fashion much like a playground bully,” says former teammate Jonathan Vaughters, who has known Armstrong since 1989, when they were both fledgling cyclists who came to races with their mothers.
Betsy Andreu was one of the first to break with omertà. She says in her statement that Armstrong telephoned her husband.
“I felt that Lance’s call was an attempt to intimidate Frankie and to influence his testimony,” she says in her statement.
She says that on another occasion Armstrong told her husband, “I have power … You won’t ride the tour.”
Others who eventually broke omertà included Floyd Landis. He had initially followed Armstrong’s alleged advice to deny, deny, deny after he tested positive in 2006, and he had gone so far as to bankroll his defense with a Floyd Fairness Fund. His supporters kicked in nearly half a million dollars that he now promised to return in exchange for not facing federal fraud charges.
“The defendant knowingly participated in a scheme or plan to defraud … obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises,” reads the deferred prosecution agreement signed in August of this year.
That would seem to describe much of Armstrong’s career in what the witnesses describe as a criminal enterprise, a kind in tour de racketeering, but most of the races were beyond the reach of American law. And there is some question as to whether doping before a race is criminal fraud in the same sense as raising money for a bogus defense fund.
And it should be noted that Armstrong has continued to deny taking performance-enhancing drugs or bribing officials even as he was stripped off all his titles and banned from cycling.
Few believe him. And many of us who once admired him feel too betrayed just to shrug and say he was only doing what others were already doing.
But indicted or no, Armstrong will still have at least one hat in his corner.
Hey, now that cycling is out, maybe he can get Victoria Gotti to give him a ride on her Harley.