Methods in madness

Methods in madness

USADAs report claims it has answers on why Lance Armstrong never produced a positive result

Methods in madness

Throughout his career, Lance Armstrong always responded to doping accusations by saying he had been tested for banned substances hundreds of times and never produced a positive result.

How could the world’s greatest cyclist, always in the cross hairs of doping officials, never fail a drug test if he was doping, Armstrong reasoned.

An explanation emerged last Wednesday, when the US Anti-Doping Agency released its dossier on Armstrong, citing witness testimony, financial records and laboratory results. Armstrong was centrally involved in a sprawling, sophisticated doping programme, the agency said, yet he employed both cunning and farcical methods to beat the sport’s drug-testing system.

The report also introduced new scientific evidence that the agency said suggested Armstrong was doping the last two times he competed in the Tour de France.

“It has been a frequent refrain of Armstrong and his representatives over the years that Lance Armstrong has never had a positive drug test,” the report said. “That does not mean, however, he did not dope. Nor has Armstrong apparently had nearly as many doping tests as his representatives have claimed.”

As part of its investigation, USADA asked Christopher J Gore, the head of physiology at the Australian Institute of Sport, to analyse test results from 38 blood samples taken from Armstrong between February 2009 and the end of last April. Those taken during the 2009 and 2010 Tours, the report said, showed blood values whose likelihood “of occurring naturally was less than one in a million” and other indications of blood doping.

While Gore’s analysis was not a conventional anti-doping test, USADA concluded that the findings “build a compelling argument consistent with blood doping.”

The techniques used by Armstrong and his teammates to elude positive tests were widely used by many cyclists, and many believe those tactics are still in use today. They often exploited weaknesses in the anti-doping system, many of which still persist. The most basic technique outlined in the report, based on affidavits from some of Armstrong’s former teammates, was simply running away or hiding.

“The most conventional way that the US Postal riders beat what little out-of-competition testing there was, was to simply use their wits to avoid the testers,” the report concluded.

To facilitate out-of-competition testing, professional cyclists are required to inform their national anti-doping agencies of their locations at all times. Riders who receive three warnings in an 18-month period for either not providing their whereabouts accurately or not filing the information at all can be punished as if they had a positive drug test.

Noting that “the adequacy of unannounced, no-notice testing taking place in the sport of cycling remains a concern,” USADA outlined several methods used by Armstrong and his teammates to circumvent the system. The simplest was pretending not to be home when the testers arrived. As long as they were in the city they had reported as their locations, the riders found they would not receive a warning for not answering the door.

The agency compared the whereabouts information it received from Armstrong over the years with messages between Armstrong and Michele Ferrari, a sports medicine doctor who is also a target of the doping investigation. There were revealing discrepancies, the report said.

Travel plans that Armstrong conveyed months in advance to Ferrari through training and racing diaries were submitted to USADA weeks later, sometimes the day he made the trip. While those last-minute changes did not break any rules, they frustrated the agency’s testing plans. The doping agency also found that Armstrong often stayed at a remote hotel in Spain where he “was virtually certain not to be tested.”

According to the report, Armstrong abruptly dropped out of one race after his teammate George Hincapie warned him through a text message that drug testers were at the team’s hotel. Armstrong had, Hincapie said in an affidavit, just taken a solution containing olive oil and testosterone.

Riders on Armstrong’s team, the agency said, also kept a constant lookout for testers and relayed information about them to one another. Team officials often seemed to know when a supposedly unannounced drug test would occur. When the testers could not be avoided, Armstrong and his teammates turned to drug masking, according to the report.

The report indicated that during the 1998 world championships, testers were diverted to other riders on the US team while one of Armstrong’s doctors “smuggled a bag of saline under his raincoat, getting it past the tester and administering saline to Armstrong before Armstrong was required to provide a blood sample.”

The saline infusion restored Armstrong’s blood values to a level that would not attract attention.

The report also showed how Armstrong, often in conjunction with Ferrari and the team director Johan Bruyneel, was careful to use techniques and drugs that were untraceable through tests. During his first Tour de France victory, in 1999, Armstrong’s drug of choice was the blood-boosting hormone known as EPO, according to the sworn affidavits. At that time, there was no test for EPO, which is a cloned form of human hormone rather than a synthetic product.

When rumours began circulating about the arrival of a test for EPO, Armstrong and some of his teammates switched to withdrawing and then reinfusing their own blood. Again, it was a technique initially without a test. Ferrari discovered that when regular, if small, doses of EPO were injected directly into veins rather than under the skin, Armstrong and others could continue using the hormone without fear of a positive test result, the report said.

Armstrong and his teammates also learned from Ferrari that the test for testosterone was not highly sensitive and caught only those who consumed large amounts of it or carelessly used it at times of the day when testing was likely.

A test for human growth hormone, another banned substance with a following among members of the Postal Service team, was introduced only this year at the London Olympics.

According to the report, the drugs used by Armstrong and his teammates were generally supplied by Jose Marti, often at clandestine meetings. Better known as Pepe, Marti ostensibly worked as a trainer for Armstrong’s US Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams. But several riders told USADA that his training largely involved relaying information from Ferrari, who was apparently careful only to give advice rather than administer or supply drugs.

Marti, who also helped with the team’s blood transfusions, sometimes sold drugs to riders on other teams, according to the report.

Contrary to Armstrong’s repeated claim that he never tested positive, it was widely reported at the time that he tested positive for a corticosteroid during the 1999 Tour de France. But he was not sanctioned because the team produced a prescription from one of its doctors indicating that Armstrong had received it in a cream used to treat a saddle sore.

USADA, however, contends in the report that the prescription and its explanation were both shams. In his affidavit to USADA, Tyler Hamilton, the disgraced former Olympic champion and Armstrong teammate, said the positive test prompted “a great deal of swearing from Lance and Johan.” A backdated prescription, a former team employee told USADA, was created to resolve the problem.

As part of its investigation, USADA said that it recently obtained additional data from French officials who had retested Armstrong’s samples from the 1999 Tour de France. For procedural reasons, those samples cannot be used to sanction Armstrong. But the USADA report indicated that advances in EPO testing since then conclusively show that he used the hormone. The report said the retesting produced “resoundingly positive values” from six samples.

Armstrong’s account of how often he has been tested has varied. His lawyers, according to the report, have indicated that he provided samples 500 to 600 times over 14 years. USADA, however, said it tested Armstrong only 60 times, and it cited reports indicating that the International Cycling Union had tested him about 200 times, although USADA said that many of the cycling union’s tests were for a health programme rather than for prohibited substances.

“The number of actual controls on Mr Armstrong over the years appears to have been considerably fewer than the number claimed by Armstrong and his lawyers,” USADA said.

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