No Good Will Come from Retroactive Drug Testing in Pro Cycling

Many of us who covered the Tour de France have just learned of L'Equipe's latest article charging Lance Armstrong with doping during the 1999 Tour de France. Using Google Translation Tools I learned that L'Equipe used investigative journalism techniques to assemble documents from multiple sources that they say indicate that Lance Armstrong had traces of EPO in his system during the 1999 Tour.

In 2004, the Laboratoire National de Depistage du Dopage (LNDD, the French National Doping Control Laboratory) in Chatenay-Malabry, France apparently began retroactively testing frozen urine samples from pro cycling events. L'Equipe says that the purpose of this testing was to fine-tune testing methods to more accurately detect erythropoietin (EPO), a drug that is considered performance-enhancing. Some of the samples tested were from the 1999 Tour de France. The test protocol being used was not available until 2001, and some articles say that it wasn't applied to riders in the Tour de France until 2004.

L'Equipe says that several of the urine samples taken at the 1999 Tour de France indicated that the cyclists who provided them may have used EPO. The articles conclude that six of the samples were taken from Lance Armstrong. They concluded this by combining information provided by the LNDD with documents L'Equipe obtained from other sources. The information that links Armstrong with the urine samples is allegedly a six-digit control number that appears in the EPO test results from 2004 and medical control documents from the 1999 Tour de France.

It's amazing that L'Equipe would publish a sensational story like this now. It shows how interested parts of the European cycling fan base are in finding some nefarious explanation for Lance Armstrong's dominance of pro cycling over the last seven seasons. Why else would a media company spend this much time investigating the results of an event that ended more than six years ago?

Instead of questioning Lance Armstrong's 1999 victory, I'd like to ask a couple of questions that L'Equipe didn't address:

  • If the LNDD really wanted to fine-tune their EPO testing methods, shouldn't they use samples that are taken from trained athletes who have intentionally taken EPO and also used any tactics designed to foil the test?
  • Did the LNDD have any frozen samples available from other years, particularly the years prior to 1999? If so, did they find any evidence of doping in 1998 when there was a bona fide doping scandal?

I suspect that this was a calculated attempt to implicate Lance Armstrong on the part of some dissidents within the LNDD. The results probably took this long to come out because of the fundimental unfairness of using anti-doping tests that were developed after a competition is over.

The way L'Equipe presented their findings is truly insidious. The LNDD can deny that its researchers had any bad intent because they didn't lookup the tracking numbers for the samples that they were testing. The laboratory had to know, however, that L'Equipe or some other media outlet could correlate the numbers with names based on documents from other sources.

Lance Armstrong has repeatedly said that he has never taken performance-enhancing drugs. The authorities had many opportunities to detect any doping that Armstrong might have undertaken. Since they couldn't confirm any doping allegations while Armstrong was competing, I believe the book should be closed on these issues.

Retroactive drug testing will do no good for professional cycling or any other sport. Anti-doping tests conducted in this manner will cause spectators to further question the officials' ability to determine the winner in future competitions.

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