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August 25/05 8:28 am - Armstrong & L'Equipe: An Editorial


Posted by Editor on 08/25/05
 

When I heard the news that the French sports daily L'Equipe was accusing American cyclist Lance Armstrong of drug use, my heart sank. Not because I necessarily believe Armstrong is as pure as driven snow, but because of the source and the details, and because of the damage this will inflict on my sport.

Let's look at the facts:

A French lab conducted tests on the B samples of frozen urine specimens from the 1999 Tour de France. They discovered evidence that the banned substance EPO (erythropoietin) appeared to be present in those samples, six of which are alleged to have come from Lance Armstrong, who won the first of his record breaking seven consecutive Tour titles that year. Subsequently, through unethical (and likely illegal) methods, L'Equipe obtained this information and wrote a headline story accusing Armstrong of using EPO.

Immediately, WADA chairman Dick Pound and Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc jumped on the bandwagon, essentially endorsing the allegations, and ensuring that Armstrong can never receive a fair and unbiased hearing in the matter. Their actions, and those of L'Equipe have tarnished the image of Armstrong and, even worse in my view, once again associated the sport of cycling with widespread drug use.

However, a little digging would reveal that the sanctimonious individuals throwing their hands up in horror all have their own less than pure motives for pursuing this matter. L'Equipe has long had a vendetta against Armstrong - one of their writers was the co-author of the notorious LA Confidential book by David Walsh, which contained allegations of Armstrong using drugs. Armstrong managed to get injunctions stopping the publication of the book in English (it is currently only available in French, and in France), after courts agreed that any data provided in the books was circumstantial at best.

L'Equipe is owned by the Amaury Group, whose subsidiary, Amaury Sport Organization, organizes the Tour de France and other cycling events. It is certainly more than suspicious that, after years of praising Armstrong, who raised the profile of the Tour worldwide (and is credited of reviving it after another drug scandal in 1998), Leblanc has suddenly changed his tune after Armstrong has retired.

Dick Pound has also, by past statements, made it clear that he has a biased view of cycling. Pound and UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the international federation governing cycling) President Hein Verbruggen have had numerous public and bitter arguments over the implementation of WADA policies, and the UCI was one of the last sports federations to agree to WADA regulations prior to the Olympics last year. The fact that Dick Pound, as the head of WADA, would make public statements endorsing the allegations, based only on a newspaper report, is shocking, and brings into question his objectivity and ability to run an organization such as WADA.

Even if we ignore all of the above, the most serious problem that I have with this situation is that Armstrong has no ability to defend himself against these charges. None. The way this type of testing is done is very controlled, so as to remove the possibility of tampering with the results. The athlete chosen for testing (always the stage winner, the overall race leader and a number of randoms at the Tour) provides the sample under the direct scrutiny of doping officials (and direct means that they literally watch the athlete pee in a bottle). The sample is then split into an A and a B portion. The samples are sealed and sent to the lab with identification codes - even the lab does not know the name of the athlete. The A sample is tested. If it comes back negative, the rider is deemed to be clean. If it comes back positive, the athlete is informed and the B sample is unsealed, in the presence of the athlete and/or their representative for further testing.

In this case, the A samples were tested, back in 1999, and Armstrong was found to be clean. However, the B samples were frozen and kept. Years later, the lab decided to use a number of B samples from the 1999 race as part of their research into perfecting the testing process. A number of samples are alleged to have come back positive. At this point, someone informed L'Equipe, who then managed to access confidential documents to match up Armstrong's name with six of the samples. (It is reported that there were actually 12 positive samples - why did L'Equipe choose to reveal only the Armstrong results?)

The question becomes, now that the B samples are used up, how is anyone able to duplicate or refute the results? The scientific community is split on the validity of the results, with even scientists at WADA's Montreal lab expressing concern over whether the proteins being tested would have survived that length of time.

Doctor Christiane Ayotte, director of the Doping Control Laboratory at Montreal's Institut National de la Recherché Scientifique, told Charles Pelkey of the American publication VeloNews "We are extremely surprised that urine samples could have been tested in 2004 and have revealed the presence of EPO. EPO - in its natural state or the synthesized version - is not stable in urine, even if stored at minus 20 degrees."

The point is, we do not, and cannot, know if these results are true, and therefore, L'Equipe (and others who jumped on the bandwagon) have put Armstrong in a position where he cannot hope to win, while feeling free to take further jabs at him.

Cycling is among the most tested sports in the world (much more than any of the North American pro sports), with harsh penalties for those found to have used banned substances. Canadian riders on the national team, for example, are required to provide the Canadian testing agency with their whereabouts year round, no matter where they are in the world. Testers can (and do) show up at any point and demand samples. Could you imagine this happening in any other career?

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) recently released figures for testing in the April to July period of this year, and cycling (not a major Canadian sport) was fourth highest on the list for tests, with 36 (all negative). Does anyone know or write about this? Does anyone know or report that literally hundreds of tests are carried out at the Tour each year, with at most a tiny fraction of a percentage of them positive?

Did Armstrong use banned substances? I do not know. If he (or any athlete) did, they should be punished, without question. However, the type of reporting undertaken by L'Equipe is reprehensible, and the fact that the head of WADA would appear to come out in support of it truly frightening.

Maybe Lance Armstrong was correct in calling it a witch hunt.

 


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