Philip Hersh: A test of another kind for Lance Armstrong
(Editor's note: This has been updated to include Armstrong's response)
French anti-doping officials have called Lance Armstrong's bluff.
The French anti-doping agency (AFLD) proposed today that Armstrong allow re-testing on his controversial urine samples from the 1999 Tour de France, his first of seven straight Tour wins.
In a statement, the AFLD said there is "possible evidence of EPO in Armstrong samples from at least five different stages'' in 1999, when there was no accepted test for EPO, a banned blood booster, in urine samples. That evidence emerged in unofficial re-testing in 2004, three years after cycling officials approved an EPO test for urine samples.
"The AFLD proposes analysis of these samples to prove his good faith,'' the statement said.
The agency said the samples contain enough urine and have been preserved under conditions to allow a complete analysis in any lab certified by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The 2004 re-testing was done by the WADA-certified French anti-doping lab, which Armstrong supporters insist is out to get him.
"I absolutely do not trust that [French] laboratory,'' Armstrong said in 2005, when the French newspaper L'Equipe reported that EPO had been found in the 1999 samples.
It will be easy for Armstrong supporters to challenge whether the samples have been properly preserved or whether any retesting can be considered valid. They also could raise the possibility that EPO could have been added to the samples by someone who wanted to bring Armstrong down.
Anti-doping guru Don Catlin, who has signed on to oversee a testing program that is part of Armstrong's comback effort, told the New York Daily News last week that scientists know how to preserve urine samples. The issue is whether that preservation works with EPO, about which Montreal anti-doping lab Christiane Ayotte raised doubts in 2005.
The AFLD upped the ante in its offer today to Armstrong by noting in its statement that no disciplinary action can be taken as a result of the re-testing because the World Anti-Doping Code imposes an eight-year limit on retroactive action.
So what does Lance think? Through his spokesman, Mark Higgins, Armstrong issued a statement this afternoon that, as expected, said he had effectively dismissed the AFLD request -- a request which, to be fair, had an element of grandstanding.
"There is simply nothing that I can agree to that would provide any relevant evidence about 1999,'' Armstrong said.
Armstrong also took a shot at the head of the anti-doping agency, Pierre Bordry (Armstrong's statement misspells the name as "Bodry'') for being uninformed in proposing the re-testing.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Bodry is new to these issues, and his proposal is based on a fundamental failure to understand the facts.''
Armstrong's statement goes on to cite the allegedly independent investigation of the 2004 retroactive testing (the investigation was conducted by a lawyer who had represented dopers). Armstrong said that investigation invalidated the testing that found the EPO, but the World Anti-Doping Agency called parts of the investigation "farcical.''
In announcing his comeback last week, Armstrong said he would be totally transparent about testing.
It is easy to say that allowing the re-testing would be the best way to clear his name for good.
The only way it still might happen is if Tour de France officials make that a pre-condition for Armstrong's team to get an invitation to the 2009 race.
And maybe even that won't be enough for Armstrong to get involved in what could degenerate into liars' poker.
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Lance Armstrong at a conference last week in New York City. Credit: Ramin Talaie / EPA