Senator John McCain defends USADA's right to pursue Lance Armstrong; Johan Bruyneel opts to fight charges

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Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate in the 2008 US presidential election, has said that he supports the right of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to pursue former Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong on doping charges. McCain’s comments, made yesterday, came the day after a Congressman had questioned USADA’s motives in bringing charges against the former US Postal rider. Meanwhile, USADA yesterday confirmed that Armstrong’s former manager at that team and other outfits, Johan Bruyneel, had chosen to fight the allegations against him in an arbitration hearing.

In a statement published on his website McCain, who is senator for Arizona and was beaten in the race to the White House four years ago by Barack Obama, said: “While the charges are serious, and I expect the process to be fair, I fully support USADA and its right to undertake the investigation of, and bring charges against, Lance Armstrong.

“USADA is authorized by Congress and provides assurances to taxpayers, fans and competitors that sports in America are clean,” he continued.

“USADA’s rules and processes, approved by America’s athletes, the United States Olympic Committee and all U.S. sport federations, apply to all athletes regardless of their public profile or success in sport. This process is the proper forum to decide matters concerning individual cases of alleged doping violations,” McCain concluded.

On Thursday, Republican Congressman representative Jim Sensenbrenner, had written to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which provides most of USADA’s funding – $9 million per year, according to Sensenbrenner – questioning that body’s supervision of USADA and the anti-doping agency’s pursuit of Armstrong.

In that letter, a copy of which has been published on his website, the Congressman made reference to Armstrong having been subject to more than 500 doping controls throughout his career and never testing positive, a line repeatedly used by the former cyclist’s legal and PR advisors.

Part of USADA’s case against Armstrong, however, is that a positive test for EPO on a sample taken from the cyclist during the 2001 Tour de Suisse had been covered up with the complicity of world cycling’s governing body, the UCI.

Quoting a comment from Armstrong’s advisors accusing USADA of having created a “kangaroo court,” the Congressman underlined that a previous Federal Grand Jury investigation into the former cyclist and the US Postal team had been shelved earlier this year with no charges brought.

“USADA’s authority over Armstrong is strained at best,” he maintained. “The agency seeks to strip Armstrong of earnings and titles dating from before its own existence.  Congress designated USADA as the United States’ National Anti-Doping Organization in 2000, but the agency is seeking to sanction Armstrong for conduct beginning in 1998.  Furthermore, during Armstrong’s cycling career, the International Cycling Union (UCI) had exclusive authority to sanction Armstrong for violation of its anti-doping rules.  Even if USADA had jurisdiction over Armstrong, the majority of Armstrong’s cycling career should be protected by USADA’s 8 year statute of limitations,” he insisted.

Sensenbrenner represents Wisconsin’s fifth congressional district – an area, as Armstrong’s critics were quick to point out that includes the city of Waterloo, where Trek Bicycle Corporation is headquartered; Armstrong rode Trek bikes to each of his seven Tour de France victories, and is understood to be a part-owner of the privately held company, with BikeBiz reporting in 2005 that he had been granted 7,000 shares in it in recognition of his ongoing contribution to the business, which experienced booming sales partly as a result of his success.

In response to Congressman Sensenbrenner’s letter, USADA’s CEO Travis Tygart yesterday insisted that the case against Armstrong, Bruyneel and three others who have already received lifetime bans after choosing not to take the matter to arbitration “was not brought lightly.”

In a statement released via USADA's website, he said: “We are well aware of his [Armstong’s] popularity and the admirers he has on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, but our responsibility is to clean athletes who demand that USADA protect their right to a level playing field by eradicating drug use from sport. They rightly depend upon USADA to ensure that no matter how famous or anonymous, we will treat each alleged offender the same.

“USADA accomplishes this directive when it has sufficient evidence and not on any other basis,” he went on. “Any decision to sanction an athlete is the result of multi-level review by persons independent of USADA including a panel of arbitrators following a full evidentiary hearing with a right of appeal where, witness testimony is given under oath and subject to cross examination and which can be open to the public.



Tygart maintained: “The evidence is overwhelming, and were we not to bring this case, we would be complicit in covering up evidence of doping, and failing to do our job on behalf of those we are charged with protecting.



“We will reach out to Congressman Sensenbrenner and offer to come in and discuss the process, which is the same in all cases whether it involves high profile athletes or those who are not. 

He added: “We will also offer to brief the Congressman on how USADA is funded and the oversight that is provided by ONDCP. USADA is an open and transparent organization and welcomes the opportunity to fully address the Congressman’s inquiry.”

Meanwhile, USADA, which earlier this week gave Armstrong a 30-day extension for him to decide whether to accept its sanction or elect for an arbitration hearing, also confirmed yesterday that Belgian national Bruyneel has elected to have his case determined by a three man arbitration panel later this year.

The alternative facing Bruyneel, who is currently manager of RadioShack-Nissan but chose not to travel with it to the Tour de France after USADA said last month that it was pressing charges, would have been to accept the penalty imposed by the agency.

As directeur sportive at US Postal, Bruyneel helped mastermind Armstrong's seven Tour de France wins between 1999 and 2005, as well as two by Alberto Contador while the Spaniard was racing for Dicovery Channel and Astana,

It is thought that Bruyneel would have faced a lifetime worldwide ban, similar to that already imposed by USADA against the three other individuals charged in the case, those being the Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari and two Spaniards, former US Postal team doctor Luis Garcia del Moral and its trainer Jose 'Pepe' Marti, none of whom chose to contest the charges.

There’s a certain irony in a former Republican Presidential candidate such as McCain weighing in on the subject of the charges Armstrong is facing; at the height of his success, it was widely considered that the cyclist, who developed a close personal friendship with President George W Bush, might pursue a career in politics after his retirement from competition, with some even speculating that he might himself one day run for election to the White House.

It’s been a long time since anyone spoke of Armstrong running for office, whether at state level or elsewhere. Instead, the battle that seems likely to confirm his legacy and place in history, one way or the other, won’t be fought out through the ballot box but looks set to take place in front of USADA’s arbitration panel later this year.