Lance Armstrong sinks from seven-time hero to zero

HE HAD been among the most decorated competitors in the history of his sport, but Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life after dropping legal challenges to claims he used performance enhancing drugs throughout his career.

The announcement by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) came after Armstrong’s failure to take the charges against him to arbitration triggered the lifetime ineligibility and forfeiture of all results from 1 August, 1998, including the seven Tour de France wins.

Travis Tygart, chief executive of the USADA, said it had a duty to bring such cases any time there was an “overwhelming proof of doping”. He went on: “Nobody wins when an athlete decides to cheat with dangerous performance-enhancing drugs, but clean athletes at every level expect those of us here on their behalf to pursue the truth to ensure the win-at-all-cost culture does not permanently overtake fair, honest competition.”

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Armstrong, who retired a year ago, maintained his innocence and said the USADA was on a “witch hunt” with no physical evidence against him.

In a statement, he said: “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘enough is enough’. For me, that time is now. I refuse to participate in a process that is so one-sided and unfair.”

Armstrong, 40, said there was “zero physical evidence” to support “outlandish and heinous claims” against him, and vowed to continue fighting cancer and raising funds for his 15-year-old charity, which has collected nearly $500 million (£315m).

Hours later, he said on Twitter he still planned to join a mountain bike race in Colorado today and a marathon tomorrow.

The International Cycling Union, the world governing body, is yet to say whether it intends to follow the USADA’s lead on the punishments.

The USADA alleged he used banned substances including the blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO), steroid and blood transfusions.

On Monday, Armstrong failed to challenge the charges in a US federal court. The agency had previously said ten of his former team-mates were ready to give evidence against him.

The former German cyclist Jan Ullrich, who was second to Armstrong three times in the Tour de France, said he was indifferent as to whether he was given the American’s titles, adding: “I’ve ended my career and I have always said that I’m proud of my second places.”

Ullrich was runner-up to Armstrong in 2000, 2001 and 2003. Alex Zuelle of Switzerland was second in 1999, Joseba Beloki of Spain in 2002, German Andreas Kloeden in 2004 and Italian Ivan Basso in 2005.

Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer in 1996 before his first Tour de France win three years later, last night still had the support of one big sponsor, Nike, which said: “Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position. Nike plans to continue to support Lance and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which Lance created to serve cancer survivors.”

The American has been persistently in the public eye. He divorced Kristin Richard, the mother of three of his children, and got engaged to singer Sheryl Crow, only to split with her and father two more children with girlfriend Anna Hansen. He has also dated actress Kate Hudson.