Responding to allegations made by Lance Armstrong that he had helped cover up a positive drug test from the 1999 Tour de France, former UCI president Hein Verbruggen told VeloNews on Monday that Armstrong’s claim is “nonsense.”
In a story published Sunday by The Daily Mail, centered on reconciliation between Armstrong and former U.S. Postal Service soigneur Emma O’Reilly, Armstrong addressed a positive drug test from the 1999 Tour, for cortisone, a banned steroid.
O’Reilly was a member of the team staff in 1999 and was present during discussions on how Armstrong would cover up the positive result.
Armstrong claimed in Sunday’s meeting, which was attended by The Daily Mail’s Matt Lawton, that it had been Verbruggen’s idea to cover up the positive result with a backdated Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for a cortisone ointment, to treat saddle sores.
“The real problem was, the sport was on life support,” Armstrong said, referring to the distastrous 1998 Tour, which had produced the Festina Affair.
“And Hein just said, ‘This is a real problem for me; this is the knockout punch for our sport, the year after Festina, so we’ve got to come up with something.’ So we backdated the prescription.”
The UCI accepted Armstrong’s backdated TUE, and the issue was pushed aside in the wake of Armstrong’s first Tour victory, less than three years after he’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer, which propelled him into the spotlight across the globe.
Several years later, however, O’Reilly told Irish journalist David Walsh the truth about what had happened within the Postal team regarding the cortisone positive, which Walsh reported in his books, L.A. Confidential and From Lance to Landis. O’Reilly also told Walsh that she had taken clandestine trips to pick up and drop off what she concluded were doping products.
Armstrong sued Walsh, and his newspaper, The Sunday Times, which referenced the book in an article, for libel; he also repeatedly attempted to discredit O’Reilly.
In 2006, the Times settled with Armstrong for £300,000, and issued an apology; earlier this year, the Times sued Armstrong, who paid Walsh and the Times an undisclosed amount believed to be about £1 million — the return of the £300,000 settlement plus an additional £720,000 in interest and costs.
In his televised admission to doping with Oprah Winfrey in January of this year, Armstrong acknowledged the TUE excuse; however, he had never before linked Verbruggen, or any UCI officials, to the cover-up. During his reconciliation with O’Reilly, however, with a journalist present, Armstrong directly accused Verbruggen of being complicit in the cover up.
In an email with VeloNews, Verbruggen, who stepped down from his UCI presidency in 2005 but remained on as “honorary president,” said it was the French Ministry, not the UCI, that was responsible for conducting anti-doping controls at the Tour de France, until 2006.
“It must be very hard to cover up a positive case that was not a positive case,” Verbruggen wrote. “[Until] 2006 it was the French Ministry that was responsible for anti-doping in France with the UCI as kind of an observer. It was the Ministry that decided that [Armstrong] was not positive since they accepted his explanation (ointment). Conclusion: [the] story about cover-up is nonsense.”
Verbruggen was UCI president between 1991 and 2005 and was a member of the International Olympic Committee from 1996 to 2008. After overseeing the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, he was granted honorary membership in the IOC. He is now chairman of the Olympic Broadcasting Service, though he will step down following the Sochi Winter Games in February.
The 72-year-old Dutchman also addressed Armstrong’s interview with Winfrey in January, when Armstrong, asked by Winfrey about his donations to the UCI, had said, “There was no deal. This is impossible for me to answer this question and have anybody believe it. It was not in exchange for any cover up. … Are there things that were a little shady? That was not one.”
“Wasn’t [this] the same [Armstrong] who said to Oprah that there were never any ‘deals’ with UCI?” Verbruggen wrote. “From massive complicity by UCI with doping practices by [Armstrong] and his team a year ago, we are back now to one case in 1999 that was not even a case! Quite a progress I’d say.”
The IOC addressed Armstrong’s allegation in a statement to The Associated Press on Monday, saying, “It is hard to give any credibility to the claims of a cyclist who appears to have misled the world for decades. That said, the UCI is currently working on plans to investigate the matter more thoroughly and we await proper considered outcomes.”
Armstrong, who is seeking a reduction in his lifetime ban, told The Daily Mail that he was willing to reveal details of how the UCI had aided him in winning seven straight Tours while using performance-enhancing drugs.
“I have no loyalty toward them,” he said. “In the proper forum I’ll tell everyone what they want to know. I’m not going to lie to protect these guys. I hate them. They threw me under the bus.”
That, too, is a far cry from how that relationship had been portrayed in the media, Verbruggen pointed out. “Didn’t you press people [write] a year ago that [Armstrong] was my biggest friend?” he wrote.
In a text message to the Dutch television channel NOS, Verbruggen added: “Since when does one believe Lance Armstrong?”
Armstrong spoke with O’Reilly and The Daily Mail at an interesting time, as new UCI president Brian Cookson is in the process of creating an independent commission that will examine alleged official collusion, including Verbruggen and his successor, Pat McQuaid, who Cookson replaced in September.
In a statement Monday, the UCI said its commission would invite individuals to provide evidence:
The UCI’s Independent Commission of Inquiry is in the process of being set up and we are in advanced discussions with stakeholders on its terms of reference to allow full investigation of any allegations relating to doping and wrongdoing at the UCI. Further announcements will be made in due course.
The commission will invite individuals to provide evidence and we would urge all those involved to come forward and help the commission in its work in the best interests of the sport of cycling.
This investigation is essential to the well-being of cycling in fully understanding the doping culture of the past, the role of the UCI at that time and helping us all to move forward to a clean and healthy future.