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PARIS (AFP) — Hein Verbruggen, the former president of the UCI accused of having protected Lance Armstrong, distanced himself on Thursday from claims that he still supports the retired cyclist, as a growing doping scandal has left the U.S. rider increasingly isolated.
Verbruggen, who was president of the UCI when Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times between 1999 and 2005, hit out amid anticipation of the sportsman’s first public comments on the scandal.
The Dutchman, 71, and the UCI have been under pressure to respond to their failure to detect Armstrong’s activities, which the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency outlined in its devastating dossier that sent shock waves through the sport last week.
One suggestion has been that Verbruggen had seen Armstrong — who returned to cycling after battling a life-threatening cancer — as the standard-bearer of a sport recently tarnished by a succession of doping scandals in the 1990s.
But he said a report in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf “unjustly states that despite USADA’s dossier I still insist there is no proof,” while also rejecting claims that he took a bribe to cover up a positive test for cortisone by Armstrong in 1999.
The bribery claims, he said, were “not worth an official statement,” reiterating that Armstrong, who USADA last week said was at the heart of the biggest doping program in the sport’s history, has never been found to have tested positive by a drug laboratory.
“Therefore it could not have been hidden,” he added in a UCI statement.
Verbruggen’s statement emerged as Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport alleged that USADA’s 202-page dossier on Armstrong and more than 1,000 pages of supplementary testimony had opened a “Pandora’s box” of shady dealings.
Italian investigators are probing Michele Ferrari, a sports doctor said to have overseen Armstrong’s use of banned substances, who offered an “all-inclusive package” to top athletes and cyclists, enabling them to thwart the drug testers, the Italian daily claimed.
Dozens of athletes, and sometimes entire cycling teams, were reportedly implicated in the so-called “Ferrari system,” with the network involving money laundering, tax evasion and secret Swiss bank accounts.
The Italian probe could yet cause fresh controversy for the embattled Armstrong, as sponsors, including sportswear giant Nike, cut Armstrong from their marketing campaigns. Armstrong stepped down Wednesday from his chairmanship of Livestrong, the cancer foundation he set up in 1997.
Armstrong himself accepted that the adverse publicity surrounding him could impact the foundation.
Armstrong is set to speak at a gala fundraiser on Friday in Austin, Texas, to celebrate Livestrong’s 15th anniversary, in what could prove to be an emotional first appearance in the spotlight since the USADA report emerged.
His speech will be witnessed by a crowd of Livestrong backers, with organizers releasing a video recording afterwards on YouTube — so there will likely be no questions asked at the event about his fall from sporting grace.
David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California and executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute, said any Armstrong attempt to reclaim public respectability must include a confession.
“The only way [public figures] come back is when they take personal responsibility and accountability for what they’ve done,” Carter said. “He has not taken responsibility.”
That sets the stage for what could be a moment of truth for Armstrong. If not, there may be speculation about where the once-revered cycling legend goes from here.
Could Armstrong, who has denied any wrongdoing for years, suddenly now admit that he was at the heart of a massive doping scheme?
Or might the sportsman lash out at his accusers, attacking the 11 former teammates who testified against him as well as others as part of a conspiracy against the man they helped make a champion?
A week of revelations has seen public opinion shift in the United States against Armstrong.
Investment adviser Eric Davis, 50, told AFP in Austin that he “wanted to believe” that Armstrong was innocent, but that with the recent reports “there’s no escaping the fact that he did it.”
Others grudgingly admitted that Armstrong cheated, although also pointed out that the good he has done for cancer prevention, treatment and awareness mitigated this.