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Special Edition News for February 12, 2002

US Postal investigation - Why?

Last week, the investigation into the U.S. Postal Service team ground to a halt after the American team withdrew their cooperation in the French-led inquiry. With no-one ever being directly accused of wrongdoing in the affair that has dragged on for the past 18 months, questions are now being asked as to why it was necessary.

The following article has been written by Bloomberg News' Parisian based correspondent Darren Tulett, who has followed the case closely since it started in November 2000. Tulett has interviewed all of the principals in the story, and the views expressed are his own.

By Darren Tulett

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Where it started: 2000 Tour de France
Photo: © AFP

Lance Armstrong hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

The French investigation into his U.S. Postal Service team is set to collapse (February 7 News) after nearly 18 months of trying to dig up some dirt on the triple Tour de France champion and his teammates from the 2000 race.

On the face of it, that's good news, even if it has been long in coming. The problem for Armstrong is that investigators are saying a recent decision by the American team to withdraw any further co-operation has prevented them reaching a satisfactory conclusion.

Although they haven't found any evidence of wrong-doing after all these months of tests, investigators see a face-saving way of wrapping up their unsuccessful inquiry: the USPS's refusal to take riders to a clinic in Paris last week for more examinations means the dossier has come to a "dead-end," according to Paris public prosecutor Francois Franchy.

"We can't force them to come, so we're a bit stuck," Franchy said.

The reason they can't force Armstrong or anybody else to come is that no-one is directly accused of anything. It's one of those open-ended inquiries, favored by the French judicial system, that leaves many outsiders perplexed. Then again, if they had come up with any evidence of criminality, charges would have been brought, so why the mystery? Is it just to maintain a hint of drama, suspicion?
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Armstring facing the pack, TdF 2001
Photo: © Sirotti

Armstrong is adamant he and his team did everything possible to help the inquiry even though they were never officially informed of what was going on, either through the team management or their French attorneys.

"We have been kept in the dark from day one," Armstrong said in an interview. "Still, we have done all they asked. I personally sent a letter to the judge one year ago saying I would meet her any time, any place, anywhere."

"I offered to meet her, sit down and talk, but I was never taken up on the offer. And now they're saying we're not co-operating. It's beyond a joke, and totally unfair."

For sure, this whole affair throws up a host of questions, and not all of them have easy-to-find answers.

Why has it taken so long? Why did they continue delving, probing, testing even after the original exams revealed nothing abnormal? Was there a will to bring Armstrong down?

Franchy, the public prosecutor, says no.
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No proof of wrongdoing
Photo: © AFP

"We are not looking to sully anybody's reputation," he said. "And we haven't found any proof of wrongdoing. But they haven't helped us at the end of the inquiry and that's a problem of conscience for them."

Before we get onto the witch-hunt theories, let us not forget that all this began with an unwise decision by somebody or other to dump bags which contained swabs, pill packets and the like, away from the hotels being used by the USPS team during the 2000 Tour de France.

Although organizers had provided teams with a system of disposing of such material, somebody in the USPS hierarchy must have decided to do their own waste disposal. With hindsight, surely they realize that was a mistake.

Even if the arguments about snoops going through hotel bins is entirely believable, hindsight suggests a phony storm about discarded aspirin packets or band-aids would have been preferable to what the team has gone through since.

A French television crew filmed the do-it-yourself disposal procedure and it led to the judicial inquiry being opened in Paris in November 2000, not long after Armstrong had chalked up the second of his three straight Tour victories.

What happens next is pretty straightforward. At first, anyway.

The bags' contents were tested, and cleared, well before last year's Tour de France.

The inquiry also tested blood and urine samples from the USPS riders at the 2000 Tour.

Dr. Jacques De Ceaurriz, director of France's National Laboratory of Drug Detection at Chatenay-Malabry in the Paris suburbs, said his team performed the tests for EPO about a year ago.

Like Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who first expressed his surprise last Spring, De Ceaurriz couldn't understand why the inquiry was taking so long. Why, if they kept coming up empty-handed, did they persevere?

De Ceaurriz concluded the investigation probably didn't know what it was looking for. "If you're fishing around in blood tests without knowing exactly what you are looking for, it can slow you down," he said.
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Photo: © Sirotti

Some of those directly involved in the inquiry began to feel hounded, targeted. Even more so than usual.

Armstrong, flanked by prestigious French attorney George Kiejman, turned up in a swanky Paris hotel last year to reveal the unofficial results - negative - of the first rounds of tests. Like a cornered prize-fighter, he challenged his detractors to do their worst, fire off their most unfriendly questions. He'd come to the enemy's backyard for a scrap, was the impression we got.

The thing is, Armstrong said then and ever since that they hadn't found anything because there was nothing to find and nobody has come up with anything concrete to challenge that. So why has the inquiry gone on?

Can it be that there was, somewhere behind the scenes, a deliberate goal of discrediting Armstrong, his team, or the Tour de France?

When you learn that investigators have decorated the enormous file on Armstrong with a photo of the man himself parading down the Champs-Elysees in victory celebration, it doesn't sound like there's anything amiss. That is until you see someone has cut out a picture of a syringe and stuck it on top of the photo, aiming the needle up Armstrong's ass.

"There comes a time when, without wanting to be paranoid, you have to wonder about the motives and objectivity of some people," Armstrong said.

It makes you wonder. Has a previous cycling champion or any sporting great, which Armstrong undoubtedly is, ever had to put up with so much suspicion?
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Armstrong, Bruyneel and Heras
Photo: © AFP

Some of the methods used by investigators also surprised people at the USPS team. While there was never a letter to the attorney or team management, USPS directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel found himself having to field calls for information on his mobile phone.

Bruyneel, who said he and the USPS team doctor had come to Paris and submitted to questioning by narcotics police, couldn't understand what was still fuelling the investigation.

"I don't know why we're being treated in this way, but there comes a time when you have to say enough is enough," Bruyneel said in an interview.

"They've had 18 months doing tests on our samples - what more do they want?"

Perhaps a little personal glory, according to a theory advanced by attorney Kiejman and supported by several followers of the dossier who don't make it a rule to be on Armstrong's side.

While other scientists have done their tests and come up empty-handed, Gilbert Pepin, who runs the Toxlab laboratory in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, seems unwilling to settle for the same fate.
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Still the champion
Photo: © Sirotti

"I do get the impression at times that Mr. Pepin wants to be the one who tells his colleagues that he found the magic potion that makes Lance fly up the mountains," Kiejman said.

"The trouble is, there is no magic potion."

In Armstrong-speak, that comes out slightly differently. But the message is the same.

"Hard work, sacrifice and focus will never show up in tests," he said.

With no more tests likely to be carried out now, the inquiry is all set to be quietly closed. Eighteen months of tax-payers' money for no tangible result. And not a winner in sight.

Related stories

US Postal probed and respond - November 8, 2000
US Postal: A case or not? - November 9, 2000
US Postal: more responses - November 10, 2000
US Postal investigation official - November 24, 2000
US Postal respond (again) - November 26, 2000
USA Cycling president hits out at French judges - November 30, 2000
US Postal samples to be analysed - January 5, 2001
Lighter French focus for USPS - January 10, 2001
U.S. Postal Service presentation, Armstrong comments - January 27, 2001
US Postal samples requested - February 1, 2001
Legal wrangling blocks USPS blood tests - March 9, 2001
UCI to hand over US Postal samples - March 16, 2001
USPS Enquiry: Judge too slow - March 28, 2001
Hopes that USPS enquiry will be completed within two months - June 28, 2001
US Postal Service investigation could run into 2002 - October 17, 2001
No drugs so far in USPS investigation - October 27, 2001
US Postal investigation to collapse - February 7, 2002