PARIS — Ben Johnson. Jose Canseco. Lance Armstrong?
The seven-time Tour de France winner faced a battle Tuesday to salvage his reputation, in the face of a detailed report in the French sports daily L'Équipe that he took the banned blood-boosting drug erythropoietin (EPO) during the 1999 race.
Mr. Armstrong, who retired last month after winning a record seventh Tour, issued a terse response on his website, saying "I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance enhancing drugs."
L'Équipe reported that the French national drug testing laboratory had found "indisputable" traces of EPO in six urine samples taken from Armstrong in 1999. The paper published a laboratory document showing positive EPO results for six anonymous samples taken during that year's Tour de France, and matched their identifying numbers with statements Armstrong had signed.
No test existed in 1999 for detecting EPO, which enhances the blood's ability to carry oxygen. Laboratory officials refused to explain why they had retested 1999 urine samples last year, only confirming in a statement that they had done so.
L'Équipe said they had been refining their detection methods. One prominent antidoping expert, however, suggests the analysts were deliberately seeking to target Armstrong.
"Scientists have had their doubts about Armstrong for a long time," says Jean-Pierre de Mondenard, a sports doctor in Paris who once worked for the Tour, detecting riders' drug use. "They were fed up with being fooled. Armstrong's seven victories were a defeat for the battle against doping."
Armstrong has repeatedly denied ever using performance enhancing drugs, pointing to the dozens of tests that he has successfully passed over the past eight years, since he returned to professional cycling after defeating cancer.
He has long been dogged by suspicion because of his remarkable dominance over cycling's premier event year after year.
Armstrong does not deny his friendship with Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor whom other riders have accused of prescribing EPO to them.
He has, however, sued the authors of a 2004 book that quoted one of his former masseuses as saying Armstrong asked her to dispose of used syringes and pick up unidentified medicines for him from Spain.
The US rider pointed out in his website statement that "I have no way to defend myself" against the latest allegations, since no additional samples of the 1999 urine remain to be tested in any attempt to replicate or contradict the laboratory's findings.
"The witch hunt continues and [L'Équipe] article is nothing short of tabloid journalism," Armstrong added.
If the newspaper's accusations are substantiated, however, "many sports fans will be very sad," French Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour said.
And that would cast doubt on the legitimacy of his subsequent six victories, suggested Gérard Guillaume, doctor for the "Française des Jeux" cycling team, to French radio.
"The more sophisticated the controls, the more undetectable are the means used by sportsmen" to evade them, Dr. Guillaume added.
"But [Armstrong] remains a very great champion and a great professional," Guillaume said. "He pushed physical preparation to new limits, and events will confirm or not L'Équipe's revelations."