By Jim Litke, AP Sports Columnist
Seven years, seven wins, some 17,000 miles of road covered since…and we’re right back where we started.A French newspaper is charging Lance Armstrong with doping.Again.He’s denying it.Again.And the rest of the world is choosing up sides.Again.I have no idea whether Armstrong used the blood-boosting drug EPO towin his first Tour de France in 1999, despite having been on hand for thatone and each of the last three. And you could argue that neither does L’Equipe,the leading French sports daily, despite devoting four pages Tuesday tothat allegation, bolstered by pictures, an editorial and a front-page headlinescreaming, “The Armstrong Lie.”That was the tack Armstrong took: In a statement posted even beforeL’Equipe hit newsstands, he wrote, “Yet again, a European newspaperhas reported that I have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs….“The paper even admits in its own article that the science in questionhere is faulty and that I have no way to defend myself. They state: ‘Therewill therefore be no counter-exam nor regulatory prosecutions, in a strictsense, since defendant’s rights cannot be respected.’“I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never takenperformance enhancing drugs.”As befits a man fighting several legal battles on two continents atonce, Armstrong has very good lawyers.Note how the opening reference in the statement, “Yet again, a Europeannewspaper,” subtly calls into question both the timing and the motivesof L’Equipe, which has been hounding Armstrong relentlessly sincethe beginning of his reign.For purposes of comparison, think about how U.S. media outlets havebeen pursuing Barry Bonds & Co., then add a few conflicts of interest.For one, the newspaper’s parent company, Amaury Sports Organisation,also owns the Tour de France and runs both out of the same building. Foranother, former L’Equipe journalist Pierre Ballester was co-authorof last year’s “L.A. Confidential, the Secrets of Lance Armstrong,” abook the cyclist dismissed by saying, “Extraordinary accusations requireextraordinary proof.” (Which, when you think about it, is an extrardinarilyphrased non-denial denial.)And then there was the parting gift L’Equipe put it in the paperthe day after Armstrong’s record seventh straight win: “Never to suchan extent, probably, has the departure of a champion been welcomed withsuch widespread relief.”But more to the point, Armstrong’s response to L’Equipe pointsto flaws in the tests used for this latest indictment, and there are several.The original ‘A’ samples were used for testing in 1999, before EPO,or erythropoietin, could be detected in urine. Their absence not only makesconfirmation impossible – and likely any sanctions – it means there isno scientific control.The ‘B’ sample that came back positive, meanwhile, was frozen sincethen and tested only last year, after scientists at a lab outside Parisbegan honing their EPO research.What all the charges and denials add up to, ultimately, is more of thesame. While L’Equipe has laid out the most compelling evidence yetthat Armstrong was doping, it doesn’t rise to the level of a smoking gun.That unsatisfying conclusion means his detractors, as well as some ofthe scolds who run the tour, the sport and the anti-doping agencies arefree to air their suspicions and claim Armstrong’s reputation has beenruined. It also leaves untouched the central argument that his defendershave been making for years _ namely that Armstrong has been the most frequentlytested athlete in the world and has yet to come back with a positive, confirmedresult even once.Taking into account the messenger, the quality of the evidence and thealready unsatisfying state of relations between the two nations, a standoffwas probably inevitable.People will believe who and what they choose to believe, something AssociatedPress colleague Jim Vertuno, who’s covered Armstrong in Austin, Texas,the last few years, summed up perfectly:“The detailed report will give the French media something to hang theirhat on and say, ‘We told you so,’ while in America, Armstrong will be givena legitimate pass because there will be no legitimate way to prove theallegations.”A poll on ESPN.com had already generated 35,000 responses by mid-afternoon,with more than 70 percent of the respondents believing Armstrong was clean.Whether his numbers will be even that good on the other side of eitherpond remans to be seen.Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc pronounced himself, “veryshocked, very troubled by the revelations we read this morning.” By thesame token, Miguel Indurain, the Spaniard whose five straight tour titlesbecame the last milestone Armstrong passed on his way into the record book,was among the first to rush to Armstrong’s defense. He told the Web sitetodociciclismo.com, “They have been out to get him in France for a numberof years.”Everyone loved Armstrong once. That was at the start of the 1999 tour,when race organizers were desperate to shake the specter of widespreaddoping and he was a cancer survivor with no drug allegations clouding hispast who’d just won two of the first 10 stages.But then he zoomed up into the Alps and locked up the race barely halfwaythrough it, and suspicion latched onto his trail like a shadow. Even ifArmstrong is as clean as he says, there’s still no way to shake it. It’seasy to prove what’s true, impossible to prove what’s not.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.