Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Hey France! Guess who's coming back to dinner?

Lance Armstrong, enraged over what he calls "trumped up" charges that he took illegal performance enhancing drugs in 1999 (that's 7 years ago, incidentaly) has threatened to return to the Tour de France. He says he thinks it would be the best way to pay back the French for their "setup" drug charges. Armstrong is exercising every day and most experts think he is capable of winning the Tour 2, 3 or 4 more times. Ooh. Won't that just cause the City of Lights' lights to dim a bit? Zzzzzzzzzt Zzzzzzzzzzt Blink, flicker, flicker.

If you are unfamiliar with the latest charges from France, here is the story as I understand it. There are several compounds around called EPO. These are compounds that enhance the oxygen carrying red blood cells. They are illegal for use in most all professional and amateur sport and have been illegal in cycling since 1999. However, there was no accurate and definitive test available in 1999. Blood samples are taken from the cyclists for a myriad of tests in the following manner. There are two samples taken, an "A" sample and a "B" sample. Those two samples are separated and maintained under seperate chain-of-custody protocols. If the "A" sample tests positive, then the "B" sample is retrieved and it, too, must test positive for the athlete to be accused of fracturing the rules. It's a bit more complicated. For instance, the two test results have to be within a specific range of each other. If the A test, for instance, indicates that the athlete is running on 100% ethanol instead of blood, and the B test says, no, it's only 1%, then the range between the two tests would be considered too wide and both tests would be invalidated. It's all very spooky and technical and immensely expensive and time consuming but it's all part of the game.

Armstrong, along with 5 other cyclists, gave A and B blood samples to a laboratory to help in the development of a test for EPO in 1999, after he had won his first of 7 consecutive Tour de France races. The agreement with the laboratory was complete anonymity for the cyclists. The samples were identified by code number only. The A samples were used by the laboratory in the development of the test. The A samples were all used and no longer exist. There is apparently some history showing that the tests will occasionally detect EPO in A samples but the tested B samples proove negative. The test procedure wasn't submitted for approval to the cycling world bodies until 2001 and wasn't approved and instituted until 2004. In any case, the cycling world sanctioning bodies, at least that of the Tour de France, have accepted and use this testing method.

Armstrong's cycling team handed in a document in 2005 which contained a code number much like that of the numbers that identified the "anonymous" samples taken in 1999. A French newspaper managed to get hold of the document and matched the code numbers, claiming that the newspaper could now identify Armstrong's 1999 sample. The French newspaper also got hold of the 1999 B sample test reports from the newly developed EPO test which showed the presence of EPO in Armstrong's 1999 test.

The problems here are several. First, doping experts say the test itself is unreliable. Second, there is no C sample to retest to confirm the result. Third, the French newspaper strangely could not identify the other 5 cyclists' samples, only that of the hated American who had stolen their beloved bicycle race from them, 7 consecutive years. Fourth, the test is from blood samples taken 7 years ago whose chain-of-custody is suspect because the samples were never to have been used to establish the presence of EPO, only to develop a test for the compounds. Fifth, Armstrong had to take EPO as a part of his doctors' aggressive treatments to save him from advanced testicular cancer which had spread to his lungs and brain in '96, '97 and '98. Armstrong was of course not competing in cycling races at the time. He was racing back and forth from home to hospital to laboratory trying to stay alive.

So what we have here is just a case of sour grapes which the French refuse to let lie even though Armstrong announced his retirement and would no longer be returning to France to haunt their beloved Tour. Even France's most famous athlete, Bernard Hinault who won the Tour 5 times himself, has said this bruhaha is wrong and unjust and the whole affair is, basically, a load of crap. Well, the French, with the exception of Hinault, have maybe cooked their own goose this time. Armstrong is just angry enough to return from retirement and kick butt all over the French countryside for another few years.

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