God knows, I've tried hard to believe in Lance Armstrong, despite a nagging suspicion he's about as clean as a blacksmith's jockstrap. Most tested professional athlete, he always used to boast; yet never returned a positive result. Or was that Marion Jones? Hmmm. And now he's come up with a dubious excuse to avoid resolving the one great question hanging over his career: his allegedly EPO-laced urine samples from the 1999 Tour de France.
Why would he want to do that? People will draw their own conclusions. But presuming a clean re-test would've cleared his reputation and silenced an increasing percentage of folk who struggle to take his doping denials seriously, it's not unreasonable to wonder what he was so worried about. For someone who claims to support the war against performance-enhancing drugs, it seems an unusual stance to adopt.
It was just last week that the Texan superstar cyclist, on the cusp of launching a comeback after an absence of more than three years, was invited by French anti-doping boss Pierre Bordry to have his controversial 1999 tour samples re-tested, in the interests of proving beyond doubt that he had "never cheated in his brilliant career".
"It was a good opportunity for him to answer positively to my proposition, because if he is clean, as he says, I am ready to follow him," said Bordry.
The invitation followed Armstrong's announcement that he was intending to resume professional racing in 2009, and more pertinently, the shock 2005 newspaper reports alleging that six of his B samples from the 1999 tour had later been found to contain the banned substance EPO a blood-boosting hormone that enhances endurance. It was claimed each positive test sample was collected either before or after the most gruelling stages of the tour. No effective EPO testing method was developed until 2001.
The six positive results on what allegedly turned out to be Armstrong's urine (remember, no names are on the samples, just code numbers), only came to light after a French laboratory trialled a new EPO testing method on samples stored from the 1999 tour. Curiously (or not) the normally litigious seven-times TDF winner didn't sue the newspaper concerned, L'Equipe, nor the reporter who wrote the article. Now Bordry and his team would like to put the matter to rest.
But Armstrong, despite being immune from any disciplinary action because the test samples fall outside the eight-year window allowed for retrospective action, won't have a bar of it. He's even gone as far as using a long-discredited research theory as an excuse, quoting the 2005 Vrijman report as proof that retrospective tests for EPO could not be trusted. That's right, the same report that former Wada boss Dick Pound said was "so lacking in professionalism and objectivity that it bordered on the farcical".
Bordry, for his part, has rejected Armstrong's claim that the tests would be unreliable. "Scientifically there is no problem to analyse these samples," he said. "They have been kept in good condition and we have enough quantity to do [the tests]. Everything is correct."
Armstrong could've even pushed for his new personal doctor, anti-doping guru Don Catlin, to conduct the test with a Wada expert observing, but wasn't interested. It's got to the stage where it's hard to keep giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Circumstantial evidence extends at least as far back as 1995, when Armstrong linked with notorious team doctor Michele Ferrari, an associate of the disgraced University of Fererra professor, Francesco Conconi. Then there was the so-called 1999 Tour of Redemption, the race that six years later would give rise to a dozen retrospective positive tests for EPO, including six from Armstrong's samples alone. Two of his team-mates from that tour have already admitted to doping. One, Frankie Andreu, said he was introduced to performance-enhancing drugs on the 1995 tour, when he was in a Motorola team that included Armstrong and New Zealander Stephen Swart.
In 2000, there was more controversy for Armstrong after a French television crew filmed members of his US Postal team getting rid of medical waste that included packaging for a new drug named Actovegin, an EPO-like substance that apparently includes an extract of calves' blood in its ingredients. An investigation petered out nearly two years later for lack of evidence, but Actovegin was added to the banned list. The next year Armstrong tested positive for Cortisone, but authorities accepted an explanation that he'd merely forgotten to declare it.
But surely the most damning evidence emerged in 2004 when David Walsh's book LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong, was published in France, including allegations from Swart that closely resemble the picture painted by Andreu. Swart would later testify that top Motorola riders discussed EPO in 1995; that Armstrong told team-mates that there was "only one road to take" to be competitive, and that the meaning of Armstrong's comment was clear: "We needed to start a medical programme of EPO."
Swart said in a New York Times interview a couple of years ago that, because there was initially no testing or screening for EPO, signs of drug use were widespread on the 1994 and 1995 tours. "Everyone was walking around with their own Thermos, and you could hear the sound tinkle, tinkle, tinkle coming from the Thermoses because they were filled with ice and vials of EPO," he said. "You needed to keep the EPO cold, and every night at the hotel, the guys would be running around trying to find some ice to fill up their Thermos."
I'm no competitive cyclist, but that sounds a little too unequivocal to dismiss lightly.
As Pound said after the L'Equipe revelations, there is "now an onus on Lance Armstrong and the others to explain how it is EPO got into their systems."
The man some have dubbed "Mellow Johnny" had the chance to do just that last week.
I can think of only one good reason why he didn't.
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