While Lance Armstrong's hopes to win his unprecedented 8th Tour de France title crashed yesterday on the climb up to Morzine-Avoriaz, he faces the increasingly real possibility that he might soon be in a battle to hang onto some of the seven titles he won from 1999 to 2005.
In late May and again earlier this July, Armstrong’s former teammate Floyd Landis, who was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title under a cloud of doping accusations, came forward to admit that he doped and took banned substances during his career. At the same time, Landis accused Lance Armstrong (and other former teammates) of doping during the years that he was winning Tour de France titles as a member of the US Postal Service Team. There are reports that both the federal government and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (“USADA”) the group charged with enforcing American athlete compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code are investigating the allegations that Landis has levied against Armstrong. Chiefly, that he violated the Code in various ways by committing prohibited doping offenses en route to winning the Tour de France in 2002, 2003 and 2004, the three years that Landis and Armstrong rode as teammates for the US Postal Service Team.
If Lance Armstrong is charged with violating the World Anti-Doping Code by the USADA some of the seven Tour de France championships he won as king of the bike will surely be at stake. So will his reputation. Armstrong has remained steadfast in his denial of the many doping accusations that have hounded him throughout his career, and he has never failed a drug test.
The first three titles Lance won from 1999 – 2001 are safe. They would not be part of any proceeding brought against him since the Statute of Limitations under the World Anti-Doping Code is eight (8) years.
The 2002 title is also likely to be safe for the same reason. The USADA would have to bring charges against Lance before this year’s Tour ends to comply with the requirement that any action commence within eight (8) years of the date the doping violation is alleged to have occurred.
So at most, “just” the three (3) titles Lance won from 2003 – 2005 are likely to be at stake.
Procedurally, if the USADA were to charge Lance with a violation of the World Anti-Doping Code, the case would go to arbitration before a three-member Arbitral Tribunal of the American Arbitration Association North American Court of Arbitration for Sport (“AAA”). No matter what happened in what would undoubtedly be the biggest anti-doping case in history, the decision of the AAA would almost certainly be appealed by one of the parties to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”), the “Supreme Court” for Olympic sports, based in Lausanne, Switzerland for what could be a de novo second trial of the underlying facts.
This is what happened in USADA v. Landis. Floyd Landis’ case in 2006 and 2007 was tried before both the AAA and the CAS after he was accused of a doping violation en route to winning the 2006 Tour de France. Both times he was found guilty. Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title and banned for two years.
In this instance, it is likely the USADA would also seek to suspend Lance for two (2) years for his first doping offense in addition to stripping him of his Tour de France titles from 2003 – 2005, though it could seek a suspension of up to four (4) years if the USADA alleges that there are “aggravating circumstances” which justify a heightened suspension.
The USADA would have to prove to the Panel that the evidence presented against Lance proved “to a comfortable satisfaction” that he was guilty as charged (a standard akin to the American clear and convincing evidence standard). While the burden on the USADA would be high in theory, practically speaking the deck would be stacked against Lance. There are only a handful of times where an athlete has prevailed after being charged with a doping offense under the World Anti-Doping Code.
As a recent example, Alejandro Valverde, the world’s top ranked cyclist, was found guilty by the CAS of a doping offense just last month in June and banned for two years from competition. And Valverde never tested positive for a banned substance. The case against Valverde was proved by circumstantial evidence that convinced the three member CAS Tribunal he was guilty. Interestingly, Valverde was not stripped of any of his past triumphs, including his 2009 victory at the Spanish Vuelta and his three stage wins at the Tour de France despite the evidence presented that he was part of a blood doping ring that took place in 2006.
An arbitration brought against Lance Armstrong by the USADA would dwarf anything the still young Olympic anti-doping system has ever seen. How it would play out is anybody’s guess. But it would certainly put the still relatively unknown Olympic doping system of jurisprudence into the American sports spotlight.