For more than a decade, Lance Armstrong has denied ever taking performance-enhancing drugs. But now, amid new allegations against Armstrong by former teammate Tyler Hamilton, federal agent Jeff Novitzky may have the evidence he needs to bring him down. Men’s Journal ran this story in our October 2010 issue.
Lance saying he has never tested positive — a claim he makes often — is akin to Bill Clinton asserting that he never had “sexual relations” with that woman. Both statements are true only in a strict, legalistic sense. Because Armstrong has tested positive at least seven times — or possibly eight, if Landis’s most explosive claim is correct, that the International Cycling Union, or UCI, covered up a positive test by Armstrong in 2002.
As noted earlier, Armstrong first tested positive right after that prologue through Futuroscope, in 1999. Even then, some questioned the decision of Tour de France officials and the Switzerland-based UCI, the sport’s governing body (think Olympic committee), for accepting Armstrong’s saddle-sore cream explanation (riders are supposed to ask permission to use medical products before the race, not after they test positive), but the UCI let it slide. Of course, they didn’t know about the urine samples that would turn out, years later, to be tainted with EPO.
In 2004 the French national anti-doping lab began a research project on an improved EPO test. They needed some samples that would probably test positive, so they dug into their archived pee bottles from 1998 and 1999, the heyday of EPO use. And out of 150 samples tested over several months, 12 came up positive.
The lab didn’t know whose samples those were until an enterprising reporter for L’Equipe — a respected French sports daily akin to Sports Illustrated — got hold of the athletes’ control forms from the UCI and somehow tricked Armstrong into confirming his secret control number (for reasons that remain unexplained). Six of the 12 positive samples turned out to belong to Lance Armstrong. In late August 2005, L’Equipe ran the story of the positive samples under the headline the armstrong lie. Tour officials expressed dismay. “These are no longer rumours or insinuations, these are proven scientific facts,” said Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc. “Someone has shown me that in 1999 Armstrong had a banned substance called EPO in his body.”
Armstrong went on the offensive before the story even appeared, with one of his classic preemptive attacks. “Yet again a European newspaper has reported that I have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs,” he said. “Tomorrow’s L’Equipe, a French sports daily, is reporting that my 1999 samples were positive. Unfortunately the witch hunt continues, and tomorrow’s article is nothing short of tabloid journalism.”
Armstrong’s victim-of-a-tabloid-smear dismissal was immediately taken up by Steve Johnson, CEO of USA Cycling: “To me, this is an issue for the French people,” he told Reuters. “They seemed very concerned about it, and frankly, I don’t care what they think. And I don’t think Lance does either. This is just a publication in a French tabloid newspaper. That’s our perspective.”
Armstrong cared enough, however, to go on Larry King Live and declare, “This thing stinks.” He implied that he’d been set up — that a French lab technician could have spiked his samples. But Michael Ashenden, an exercise physiologist who is a member of the UCI’s nine-person expert blood-doping panel, and who reviewed the lab results, says that is highly unlikely. “The lab didn’t know whose samples were whose,” points out Ashenden. “What are the odds that the laboratory successfully picked out six samples that were Armstrong’s and put EPO into them? The odds were something like 1 in 400.” The UCI, who decides, finally, who is eligible to race, commissioned an investigation into the matter by Emile Vrijman, a Dutch lawyer who, oddly enough, specializes in defending accused dopers. Vrijman’s report, released the following June, blasted the lab, the newspaper, and the World Anti-Doping Agency, (or WADA, the agency responsible for accrediting the lab), for the way the results were handled and leaked to the press. Vrijman attacked the results on procedural grounds and insisted they were invalid.
In any case, because the tests were done in a research setting years after the fact, the UCI concluded that it could not take action based on the results — much like ballplayers whose leaked positive steroids tests from 2003 made it into Major League Baseball’s Mitchell Report in 2007. And besides, by the time the scandal came to a head, Armstrong had retired, rendering the subject largely moot. In September 2005, about a month after the L’Equipe exposé, Armstrong ruled out ever returning to the Tour: “I’m happy with the way my career went and ended and I’m not coming back.”