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Armstrong can't escape the questions

8/23/2005

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.
Again.
He's denying it.
Again.
And the rest of the world is choosing up sides.
Again.

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 ESPN.com 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 todociciclismo.com,
"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.