The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, based in Colorado Springs, announced Wednesday that it's charging Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong with using banned substances to improve his performance.
It's shaping up as a confrontation between the national agency responsible for keeping blood-doping practices out of Olympic sports, and the man with ties to Colorado Springs became a national hero by beating testicular cancer and winning the world's most prestigious bicycle race seven years in a row. If found guilty by USADA, Armstrong could forfeit his Tour de France titles.
Also charged are three doctors, a manager and a trainer who are former co-members of the same Postal Service cycling team Armstrong was on.
USADA's announcement immediately bans Armstrong from competing in triathlons. He currently was trying to qualify for the World Ironman Championship.
"It's just surprising," said Justina Baker of Colorado Springs. "You think of Lance Armstrong as beating cancer and being a role model. To hear something like that is kind of alarming, kind of sad."
Armstrong, 40, during his cycling career and since his retirement from the sport last year, has steadfastly maintained his innocence and denied taking part in blood doping. The practice involves boosting red blood cells in the body to improve athletic performance. Blood doping in the past has been accomplished by transfusions of the cells, but recently has been replaced by injecting a growth hormone known as EPO.
The Associated Press and the Washington Post reported that they obtained a copy of the 15-page charging letter sent to Armstrong on Tuesday. The Press and Post said USADA outlined new allegations against Armstrong, including blood samples from him in 2009 and 2010 that were “fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions.”
The Press and Post also said USADA accuses Armstrong of using and promoting the use of EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, human growth hormone and anti-inflammatory steroids. The letter doesn't cite specific examples, but says the charges are based on evidence gathered in an investigation of Armstrong's teams, including interviews with witnesses who aren't named.
Armstrong won the Tour de France from 1999-2005. The Press and Post report that according to USADA's letter, more than 10 cyclists as well as team employees will testify they either saw Armstrong dope or heard him tell them he used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone from 1996 to 2005.
Federal prosecutors closed a two-year criminal probe in February without indicting Armstrong, but USADA insisted it would continue to pursue its own investigation. Unlike federal prosecutors, USADA doesn't have to prove a crime occurred, only that performance-enhancing drugs were used.
In a statement released Wednesday, USADA's CEO, Travis Tygart, said: "This formal notice letter is the first step in the multi-step legal process for alleged sport anti-doping rule violations. USADA only initiates matters supported by the evidence. All named individuals are presumed innocent of the allegations unless and until proven otherwise through the established legal process. If a hearing is ultimately held then it is an independent panel of arbitrators, not USADA that determines whether or not these individuals have committed anti-doping rule violations as alleged. USADA will not comment on the evidence or have further comment unless or until it is appropriate.”
Armstrong, who was in France while training for a triathlon, issued a statement dismissing the latest allegations "baseless" and "motivated by spite."
"I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one," he said.
Armstrong has until June 22 to file a written response to USADA. A hearing could be scheduled as soon as November.