Armstrong can't escape the questions

Updated: August 23, 2005, 7:44 PM ET
By Jim Litke | Associated Press

Seven years, seven wins, some 17,000 miles of road covered since -- and we're right back where we started.

A French newspaper is charging Lance Armstrong with doping.
He's denying it.
And the rest of the world is choosing up sides.

I have no idea whether Armstrong used the blood-boosting drug EPO to win his first Tour de France in 1999, despite having been on hand for that one and each of the last three. And you could argue that neither does L'Equipe, the leading French sports daily, despite devoting four pages Tuesday to that allegation, bolstered by pictures, an editorial and a front-page headline screaming, "The Armstrong Lie.''

That was the tack Armstrong took: In a statement posted even before L'Equipe hit newsstands, he wrote, "Yet again, a European newspaper has reported that I have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. ...

"The paper even admits in its own article that the science in question here is faulty and that I have no way to defend myself. They state: 'There will therefore be no counter-exam nor regulatory prosecutions, in a strict sense, since defendant's rights cannot be respected.'

"I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance enhancing drugs.''

As befits a man fighting several legal battles on two continents at once, Armstrong has very good lawyers.

Note how the opening reference in the statement, "Yet again, a European newspaper,'' subtly calls into question both the timing and the motives of L'Equipe, which has been hounding Armstrong relentlessly since the beginning of his reign.

For purposes of comparison, think about how U.S. media outlets have been pursuing Barry Bonds & Co., then add a few conflicts of interest.

For one, the newspaper's parent company, Amaury Sports Organisation, also owns the Tour de France and runs both out of the same building. For another, former L'Equipe journalist Pierre Ballester was co-author of last year's "L.A. Confidential, the Secrets of Lance Armstrong,'' a book the cyclist dismissed by saying, "Extraordinary accusations require extraordinary proof.'' (Which, when you think about it, is an extrardinarily phrased non-denial denial.)

And then there was the parting gift L'Equipe put it in the paper the day after Armstrong's record seventh straight win: "Never to such an extent, probably, has the departure of a champion been welcomed with such widespread relief.''

But more to the point, Armstrong's response to L'Equipe points to flaws in the tests used for this latest indictment, and there are several.

The original 'A' samples were used for testing in 1999, before EPO, or erythropoietin, could be detected in urine. Their absence not only makes confirmation impossible -- and likely any sanctions -- it means there is no scientific control.

The 'B' sample that came back positive, meanwhile, was frozen since then and tested only last year, after scientists at a lab outside Paris began honing their EPO research.

What all the charges and denials add up to, ultimately, is more of the same. While L'Equipe has laid out the most compelling evidence yet that Armstrong was doping, it doesn't rise to the level of a smoking gun.

That unsatisfying conclusion means his detractors, as well as some of the scolds who run the tour, the sport and the anti-doping agencies are free to air their suspicions and claim Armstrong's reputation has been ruined. It also leaves untouched the central argument that his defenders have been making for years -- namely that Armstrong has been the most frequently tested athlete in the world and has yet to come back with a positive, confirmed result even once.

Taking into account the messenger, the quality of the evidence and the already unsatisfying state of relations between the two nations, a standoff was probably inevitable.

People will believe who and what they choose to believe, something Associated Press colleague Jim Vertuno, who's covered Armstrong in Austin, Texas, the last few years, summed up perfectly:

"The detailed report will give the French media something to hang their hat on and say, 'We told you so,' while in America, Armstrong will be given a legitimate pass because there will be no legitimate way to prove the allegations.''

A poll on had already generated 35,000 responses by mid-afternoon, with more than 70 percent of the respondents believing Armstrong was clean. Whether his numbers will be even that good on the other side of either pond remans to be seen.

Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc pronounced himself, "very shocked, very troubled by the revelations we read this morning.'' By the same token, Miguel Indurain, the Spaniard whose five straight tour titles became the last milestone Armstrong passed on his way into the record book, was among the first to rush to Armstrong's defense. He told the Web site, "They have been out to get him in France for a number of years.''

Everyone loved Armstrong once. That was at the start of the 1999 tour, when race organizers were desperate to shake the specter of widespread doping and he was a cancer survivor with no drug allegations clouding his past who'd just won two of the first 10 stages.

But then he zoomed up into the Alps and locked up the race barely halfway through it, and suspicion latched onto his trail like a shadow. Even if Armstrong is as clean as he says, there's still no way to shake it. It's easy to prove what's true, impossible to prove what's not.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press