Lance Armstrong faces accusations from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency four months after federal prosecutors dropped a criminal drug probe against the seven-time Tour de France cycling champion.
Armstrong -- who called the latest allegations “baseless” and reiterated that he has never flunked a drug test -- has been banned immediately from competing in triathlons because of the investigation.
“USADA’s malice, its methods, its star-chamber practices and its decision to punish first and adjudicate later all are at odds with our ideals of fairness and fair play,” Armstrong said in an e-mailed statement.
Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of USADA, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that Armstrong, three doctors and two officials from the cyclist’s former U.S. Postal Service team were notified of the doping allegations a day earlier.
“USADA only initiates matters supported by the evidence,” Tygart said. “We do not choose whether or not we do our job based on outside pressures, intimidation or for any reason other than the evidence.”
Armstrong won the Tour de France, cycling’s premier event, each year from 1999 to 2005 after surviving testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. The Lance Armstrong Foundation, which he founded in 1997 to help cancer survivors, has raised $500 million, the charity’s Chief Executive Officer Doug Ulman said.
“If he hadn’t had cancer and started the foundation, I think he probably would lose a lot of endorsers,” Steve Herz, a sports agent and president of New York-based IF Management Inc., said in a telephone interview. “He's cloaked himself in a cape like Superman. He's untouchable.''
Armstrong, 40, who retired from cycling in February 2011, has endorsement agreements with Nike Inc., Trek Bicycle Corp. and Oakley Inc. Even if he’s found guilty, his reputation won’t suffer unduly in the eyes of corporate backers or the public, said Steve McDaniel, sports and entertainment marketing professor at the University of Maryland.
“Unlike other celebrities, he has been involved in cause-related marketing as opposed to strictly commercial endeavors,” McDaniel said in a telephone interview. “He’s generated so much good will, it has a potential for more of a halo effect.”
USADA’s accusations, first reported by the Washington Post, come after Armstrong’s attorney said the cyclist failed to meet with the agency by June 8, four days after receiving a letter offering him an “opportunity to talk about drug use in cycling.” Robert Luskin, Armstrong’s attorney, wrote in a letter to USADA that the meeting was a “demand wrapped in a threat” seeking Armstrong’s confession.
“We will not be party to this charade,” Luskin wrote in the June 8 letter. “Lance has publicly and repeatedly made clear that he never doped.”
Former U.S. Postal team manager Johan Bruyneel, former coach Pepe Marti and team doctors Pedro Celaya, Luis Garcia del Moral and Michele Ferrari also were sent letters from USADA saying they had been accused, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Cycling’s world governing body, the International Cycling Union or UCI, said in a statement that it had been notified of USADA’s probe. It didn’t identify any of the people involved.
USADA made previously unpublicized allegations against Armstrong, saying it collected blood samples from him in 2009 and 2010 that were “fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions,” the Post said. The newspaper said it had obtained a copy of a 15-page letter that was sent to Armstrong.
EPO is the abbreviation for erythropoietin, which can add energy-boosting properties to blood. Doping authorities say the drug and transfused blood have been used by athletes in endurance sports such as cycling and cross-country skiing to increase performance.
“Whether the Tour de France titles are stripped, some people will still think he is an inspiration,” Herz said. “If he’s exonerated, others will also think he’s a cheater.”
Armstrong never has been publicly identified as testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. On Feb. 4, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles ended a criminal drug probe involving Armstrong and his professional bicycle racing team without filing charges.
‘Motivated by Spite’
“These are the very same charges and the same witnesses that the Justice Department chose not to pursue after a two-year investigation,” Armstrong said in his statement. “These charges are baseless, motivated by spite and advanced through testimony bought and paid for by promises of anonymity and immunity. Although USADA alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy extended over more than 16 years, I am the only athlete it has chosen to charge.”
Armstrong was scheduled to race his first professional full Ironman event June 24 in Nice, France, to try to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii on Oct. 13.
Comcast Corp.’s NBC network said last week it planned to air this year’s championship race on Oct. 27, six weeks earlier than usual, and expand the coverage to two hours from 90 minutes. The network said the coverage was expected to focus heavily on Armstrong.
Armstrong finished second in his first half Ironman 70.3-mile (113-kilometer) race on Feb. 12 in Panama. He won his last two half Ironman events, which feature a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run. Armstrong competed as a professional triathlete at 18 before focusing on cycling.
World Triathlon Corp., which runs the Ironman series, said in an e-mailed statement that its rules “dictate an athlete is ineligible to compete during an open investigation.”