EVER since the first of Lance Armstrong’s five consecutive Tour de France victories, in 1999, it has simply not occurred to some observers that the American might not be using banned performance enhancing drugs.
Minds were made up that year. Only 12 months had passed, after all, since the Festina affair - a doping scandal that exposed the widespread use among professional cyclists of drugs, including EPO and human growth hormone - yet here was Armstrong, in the second year of his comeback from cancer, winning the fastest Tour de France in history. To some the conclusion was obvious: he was on something. He must be.
All that remained was to find out what. And while that process has continued - led by journalists and the French authorities, who carried out a two-year investigation into Armstrong and his team before dropping the case in September 2002 - suspicion has become Armstrong’s shadow. With each of his subsequent wins the campaign to "out" the Texan as a drugs cheat, or at the very least to unearth compelling evidence to suggest that he is, has gathered momentum.
Five days ago, the case for the would-be prosecution was presented with the publication, so far only in France, of a new book LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong, co-written by journalists David Walsh and Pierre Ballester.
Upon publication, Armstrong mobilised powerful legal teams in London and Paris. On Friday his French lawyer attended a court hearing in Paris, and there will be a ruling tomorrow on his request to insert Armstrong’s personal denial into the pages of the book. On Friday, the Sunday Times, which published some of the allegations in last week’s paper, removed the offending article from its website. Sources in Wapping say high-level meetings have been held all week to discuss whether to acede to Armstrong’s demand that they publish an apology today.
Much has been made this week of the allegations made by LA Confidential, but what, precisely, are they? Where do they leave Armstrong, just a fortnight before he sets out to try and win a record sixth Tour de France? Does he have a case to answer? Should he have a case to answer?
Walsh said this week that we should read the book and come to our own conclusions, even though it hasn’t yet been published in English. According to some in France who read the book this week, it doesn’t reach a conclusion, but firmly steers the reader firmly towards one.
The book is 388 pages long and calls 52 witnesses to the stand. Two key individuals are Emma O’Reilly, an Irish soigneur (masseur) with Armstrong’s US Postal team, and Steve Swart, a New Zealander who raced in the same Motorola team as Armstrong in 1994 and ‘95. Their evidence, as Walsh admitted this week, is "circumstantial". In other words, it proves nothing. It does raise questions, but the majority are not new questions.
Much of this circumstantial evidence comes from O’Reilly, Armstrong’s personal soigneur on the US Postal team in 1998-9. Among her claims are that she was asked to dispose of used syringes and to lend Armstrong make-up to conceal needle bruises on his arms; that the team issued a prescription to allow Armstrong to use a skin cream for saddle sores containing glucocorticoid, an illegal steroid; and that on one occasion she completed a 12-hour cross-border trip to Spain to collect medical products.
What was in the syringes? What were the medical products purchased in Spain? There are no answers, only conjecture.
Swart, meanwhile, claims that in 1995 he and other senior riders in the team, including Armstrong, felt under so much pressure to get results that they began using drugs, including EPO. He repeats these allegations in today’s New Zealand Herald. What he has said has surprised Brian Smith, a now retired Scottish rider who was a member of the same Motorola team in 1994 - the season before Swart says the decision was taken to start doping.
"If that’s true it would have been an unbelievable change in the culture of the team," says Smith. "When I signed for the team we all had physiological tests and blood tests and those were sent away. We had a training camp in Tuscany, then we travelled to Cannes, where we prepared for the Trofeo Laigueglia, which Lance had won the previous year. That was to be my first race for Motorola.
"But the day before the race I was called into a room with Jim Ochowicz and Hennie Kuiper, the team directors, and Massimo Testa, the team doctor, and told that I couldn’t race. They said that my blood tests had shown a testosterone level of zero, which meant either that my body had stopped producing it, or that I’d been getting it artificially. I had stubble, so I was obviously getting it from somewhere.
"It was made very clear to me that Motorola was a massive sponsor, and that they condemned any association with drugs. I had no idea what had happened, but a second test cleared me and I was able to start racing. But it showed me the team was clean. I saw nothing untoward in the year I was there, and that included riding the Giro d’Italia.
"What Swart is saying seems unbelievable to me. Testa was testing our blood six times a year; if someone took EPO he would have known. As far as I’m concerned, he was straight down the line. There was certainly EPO around in cycling, but I am very confident that Testa was absolutely clean. I know that Swart has said they started doping in 1995, but, based on my experience and the fact that Testa was there until 1996, I find it very hard to believe.
"All cyclists take injections. When you’re working your body to the limit, you can’t get everything from your food. I had iron, B complex and glucose, all by injection, but the only person who’d administer them would be a doctor. You would have marks on your body from those, but there’s nothing illegal about that. I really believe that Lance is riding on 100% focus; you can see that when he’s riding. He’s been to the edge of death, right to the limit of suffering. I think he can suffer and push himself longer than anyone else because he knows better than anyone else what his limits are."
Armstrong’s second book, Every Second Counts, is published in paperback on July 1, two days before the Tour starts. In it, he repeats what he said at a 2001 press conference dominated by questions related to doping allegations. "The innocent can never prove their innocence," he said. "How can I prove a negative?"
How indeed. To anti-doping campaigners Armstrong has, at times, proved infuriatingly evasive. His association with Dr Michele Ferrari, who has been implicated in drugs cases in Italy, has long been held up as an irresponsible act by a rider determined to prove his innocence. Yet an association with a discredited doctor, in itself, proves nothing.
And neither does repeated success, even in a sport with as tarnished a reputation as cycling. It is one thing to acknowledge that drug tests are seriously flawed, and that there are athletes who cheat, but it sets a dangerous precedent to assume, as a matter of course, that athletes who win or break world records take drugs.
And it serves not to clean up sport but to destroy it. As Michelle Verroken, until last year the head of the UK Sports Council’s anti-doping unit, once said, an "all-pervading cynicism would sound the death-knell of sport".
Lance Armstrong is a positive role model to millions; a walking miracle to some. If evidence emerges that he has doped it would represent a devastating blow for the sport of cycling. But unless, or until, such there is such evidence it can only be right that he is presumed innocent.