Armstrong denies '99 drug claim

Report in Paris paper expected to be embraced in Europe, belittled in U.S.


August 24, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Lance Armstrong is brushing aside a Paris newspaper's report that his blood showed traces of the drug EPO during his first Tour de France win in 1999.

American sports fans will probably do the same, marketing experts and Armstrong observers said yesterday.

"I think you're talking about a very minor impact," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant. "That was 1999, and he's since been tested many, many times and won many Tour de Frances."

Europeans might see the report as strong evidence against Armstrong, said Daniel Coyle, who followed the cyclist in 2004 for his book Lance Armstrong's War.

"There's a fault line when it comes to Lance Armstrong, and it runs straight down the middle of the Atlantic," Coyle said. "For most Americans, there are probably too many questions for this to be seen as the smoking gun."

Armstrong dismissed the four-page report in L'Equipe as the latest in a long line of unsubstantiated attacks by the vengeful European media.

"Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues and tomorrow's article is nothing short of tabloid journalism," Armstrong wrote on his Web site. "I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs."

However, the Tour de France's director said yesterday that L'Equipe's report seemed "very complete, very professional, very meticulous" and that it "appears credible."

"We are very shocked, very troubled by the revelations we read this morning," Jean-Marie Leblanc told RTL radio. However, he cautioned that Armstrong, his doctors and his aides should have a chance to comment before people make any final judgment.

L'Equipe is owned by the Amaury Group, whose subsidiary organizes the Tour de France and other sporting events.

Leblanc said any disciplinary action appeared unlikely. The paper's investigation was based solely on B samples, the second of two urine samples used in doping tests. The A samples were used up in 1999 for analysis at the time. The 1999 samples were taken while cycling officials were assessing the accuracy of EPO tests.

Though the samples were marked only with six-digit numbers and not names, L'Equipe said it was able to make the match to Armstrong by using official doping documents.

The governing body of world cycling did not officially use a urine test for EPO until 2001. For years, it had been impossible to detect the drug, called erythropoietin, which builds endurance by boosting the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells.

"It will be very interesting to see what UCI does and what the U.S. Cycling Federation does and what Lance Armstrong has to say," World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound told the Associated Press. "If the evidence is seen as credible then, yes, he has an obligation to come forward and specifically give his comments, especially after his previous comments that he has never used drugs.

"If anything were found, we couldn't do anything because we didn't even exist in 1999. But it's important that the truth always be made clear," Pound said.

Armstrong, a cancer survivor, seems almost the opposite of baseball players who are presumed guilty before charged.

"I think most people, given his work in the cancer community and his overall reputation, are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," Coyle said.

"He hasn't failed a drug test yet, and that makes a big difference," Ganis said, adding that the L'Equipe report probably would not reduce Armstrong's endorsement deals.

Discovery Communications, Armstrong's chief cycling sponsor, is treating the report as an unfounded attack on its star.

"We stand behind and support Lance 100 percent," said Discovery spokeswoman Michelle Russo.

Discovery - which reaches about 1 billion viewers worldwide on its myriad networks - announced its three-year, multimillion-dollar deal with Armstrong's team before the 2004 Tour.

Armstrong announced his retirement in April, but Discovery officials foresaw that possibility and included provisions for him to become an on-air personality after ceasing competition.

Armstrong had already faced doping allegations from European journalists, including former L'Equipe writer Pierre Ballester, when the deal was signed.

Those allegations gave Discovery officials pause, but they decided to stick with Armstrong, wrote Coyle, who was following the cyclist when the Discovery deal was announced.

The announcement came just after the European release of L.A. Confidential, the Secrets of Lance Armstrong, co-written by Ballester and British sportswriter David Walsh.

In the book, one of Armstrong's former assistants said the American once asked her to dispose of used syringes and give him makeup to conceal needle marks on his arms.

Armstrong sued The Sunday Times for libel after the British newspaper reprinted allegations in a review of the book in June 2004. The case is to go to trial in London's High Court in November.

Ganis said many American fans would assume the French newspaper is out to get Armstrong, who has always faced ambivalent reactions from European crowds.

"If that same article with the same headline appeared in The New York Times or The Washington Post, it would have a much bigger impact," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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