It was one of two things, depending on your point of view: a bombshell that shook the very foundation of sport or a podium girl of a scoop--titillating at first glance but ultimately lacking in substance. On Aug. 23 the French sports daily L'Equipe reported that in winning the 1999 Tour de France, the first of his unprecedented seven victories, Lance Armstrong had help from that bane of spelling-bee contestants, erythropoietin (EPO). Used legitimately to treat anemia, EPO has long been favored by unscrupulous endurance athletes for its ability to boost production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Under the toxic, front-page headline the armstrong lie, L'Equipe explained how last year scientists at France's national antidoping lab set about trying to fine-tune their test for EPO. To do so, they examined frozen urine samples left over from the '99 Tour. (Samples weren't tested for EPO until 2001.) Of the 15 samples that came back positive, the paper wrote that six belonged to Armstrong. Those samples, supposedly anonymous and confidential, were identified only by a six-digit number. L'Equipe claimed to have connected the dots by obtaining medical certificates, signed by Armstrong and Tour doctors, bearing the same number.
Among those eager to pile on was Jean-Marie Leblanc, the outgoing director of the Tour (whose parent company also owns L'Equipe). The allegations, Leblanc said, were "no longer rumors or insinuations. These are scientific, proven facts."
Not exactly. To ensure fairness and accuracy, tests take place under strict protocols. For an athlete to be found guilty by the World Anti-Doping Agency, both the original A sample and a B sample must come back positive. In this case, only one specimen--the leftover B sample--was tested. And when B samples are opened, the athlete has the right to be present, which obviously did not happen. As Armstrong said on Larry King Live last Thursday, "Who opened the samples? What protocol was followed? It was all thrown out the door."
Indeed, L'Equipe's ability to get the test results constitutes a "flabbergasting" breach of security that "violates every known standard of custody," says Dr. Benjamin Levine, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and an expert on high-altitude training. "There should be no way for the wrong people to get hold of the data or to associate [the six-digit number] with a particular athlete. It makes you wonder: What other violations occurred in the handling of those samples?"
Noting L'Equipe's long campaign to cast doubt on his feats--Inspector Javert was no more obsessed in his pursuit of Jean Valjean--Armstrong has a simple explanation. "It's a setup," he told SI. "When you open a sample and you contaminate it, or you alter the results, you can pin it to whoever. But why are they positive? When I pissed in the bottle, it wasn't positive. I guarantee you that."
While L'Equipe's evidence is almost certainly too skimpy for the UCI, cycling's governing body, the court of public opinion will arrive at its own conclusions. On the one hand Armstrong, possibly the most tested athlete in history, always comes up clean. He's even donated money--"close to six figures," he told the Austin American-Statesman--to the UCI to help it find a better test for ... EPO.
On the other hand, before finally severing ties with him last year, Armstrong was unapologetic about his association with Dr. Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor suspected (but never convicted) of doping athletes. The 2004 book LA Confidential, by David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, alleged--but never proved--that LA took performance-enhancing drugs. Will L'Affaire L'Equipe turn Armstrong's legions of fans against him?
They remained, at week's end, well shy of that tipping point, and properly so. Americans (and many of L'Equipe's own readers) recognize that the paper has tried and convicted Armstrong without anything remotely resembling due process. Some 73% of respondents to an SI.com poll said they believed Armstrong. "It's outrageous, scandalous, to attack Lance," fumed Tour stage winner Davis Phinney. The allegations were "completely without credibility ... preposterous," said USA Cycling's Gerard Bisceglia. Joining the chorus of indignation was Jon Stewart. The Daily Show host addressed the French on his program: "I don't care if you found out that he has a jet engine in his anus. He's the best that's ever been. Leave it alone."
Whether or not the Texan will go down as the greatest cyclist ever--or if it's Belgium's Eddy Merckx--is open to debate, but this much is not: If its goal is to bring down Armstrong, to transform his fame to infamy, L'Equipe will have to do better than this.
Penny offered the batboy $500 if he drank a gallon of milk. --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 26