"Et tu, Phil?" Even Liggett starts to doubt Armstrong's innocence
But commentator who has long fought disgraced rider's corner stops short of acknowledging Lance Armstrong's guilt
Cycling commentator Phil Liggett, who in August claimed that Lance Armstrong was the victim of a conspiracy after USADA imposed its life ban on him, appears to be slowly coming round to the notion that the disgraced cyclist doped his way to seven Tour de France wins. However, he has stopped short of saying outright that he now believes the former US Postal Service rider broke the rules.
The 69-year-old, who has regularly repeated his belief that Armstrong was innocent of the doping allegations made against him, was interviewed for an episode of the Australian investigative TV programme Four Corners called The World According to Lance that was aired on ABC and which can be watched via the channel’s website.
“He came back again and again and again, winning Tour after Tour, and he did it seven times and of course it’s a record,” said Liggett. “Nobody’s ever done it, and for many people it was unacceptable – it was impossible to do that without taking drugs.”
He continued: “I admit I’ve been very proud to commentate on Armstrong over these years, because I’ve seen a man, and I’ve seen how he’s battled the elements, and I’ve seen how he’s come forward and I’m very sad.
“What do I think? Everybody else did it so I find it very difficult not to think that Lance did it.”
Of course, that is not the same as an unequivocal acknowledgement that Armstrong took drugs, but gone is the bullish defence of the former cyclist that Liggett made in a video interview with South African sports website Ballz in August.
At the time, he hit out at USADA, which he described as a "nefarious local drugs agency," claiming among other things that pressure had been put on potential witnesses and bribes offered to them.
At the end of the Four Corners documentary, Liggett hinted that he is yet to be fully convinced of Armstrong’s guilt.
“I know the power of this man when he walks in the room and I know the hope he give cancer survivors. I don’t know, if he is proved to have taken drugs, how he can face any of these people,” he said.
“He can call up Barack Obama, he has his cellphone number on his cellphone, and how can you call up these people knowing you have taken drugs all your life to cheat to seven Tours? It’s a problem I wouldn’t want.”
Some may wonder whether this matters, Liggett after all being just the latest in a long line of people connected with cycling to have expressed an opinion on the Armstrong case.
It matters because Liggett, veteran of some 40 editions of the Tour de France first as a journalist and more recently as a commentator is for many the ‘voice of cycling.’
He is among those to have prospered during the Texan’s dominance of the Tour de France, his commentary, alongside Paul Sherwen, syndicated around the English-speaking world including the United States.
The Four Corners documentary itself is punctuated by archive clips of Armtrong’s Tour de France win, Liggett at the microphone.
Armstrong and, it is believed, Liggett invested in a gold mine Sherwen runs in Uganda, where the British ex-rider, who worked as press officer at Armstrong’s former team, Motorola, is based. Both Liggett and Sherwen are said to have been paid to speak at fundraising events held by Armstrong’s Livestrong charity.
Those ties and their apparently unswerving loyalty to Armstrong have resulted in their impartiality regularly being called into question as the investigation into him has gathered pace.
And that matters because many fans, and particularly those new to the sport, whether watching ITV4 in the UK, NBC in the United States or channels in other countries, rely on their commentary to help make sense of what is going on in the sport.
It’s a commentary from which objectivity appears, to date, to have been missing.