French Paper: Armstrong Used Blood Enhancer

The French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe reported Tuesday that six urine samples taken from U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong during the 1999 Tour de France have recently tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug EPO, or erithropoietin. Armstrong won the Tour de France in 1999, the first of a record seven straight titles. Melissa Block talks to Charles Pelkey of the magazine Velo News.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Doping allegations are once more dogging Lance Armstrong. The French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe reported yesterday that six urine samples taken from Armstrong in the 1999 Tour de France have recently tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug EPO, or erythropoietin. Armstrong won the Tour de France in 1999 for the first of seven straight years. He's now retired from cycling and calls the article and its charges a `witch-hunt nothing short of tabloid journalism.' Armstrong said in a statement, `I will simply restate what I have said many times. I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs.' Charles Pelkey is covering the story for the cycling magazine VeloNews.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. CHARLES PELKEY (VeloNews): Certainly.

BLOCK: And help us understand something, Charles. Back in 1999, when these samples were given, there was no test for EPO. There is a test for it now. Why is it that these samples from six years ago were being retested?

Mr. PELKEY: The initial discussion was that they were testing older samples to refine their testing procedures and the way they interpret results from those tests.

BLOCK: This was a lab in France?

Mr. PELKEY: It's the French National Doping Laboratory, in fact, the laboratory that initially developed the test in 2000.

BLOCK: Now these samples that were retested were not attached to a name. There was just a number that was being used, and it was all supposed to be anonymous when the lab did these retests. So how did the newspaper L'Equipe link these samples, these numbers to Lance Armstrong?

Mr. PELKEY: I think that's a big question. I think that's one of those situations where they're not actually saying exactly how they made the connection. But they do have documentation to show that those numbered samples are, in fact, those connected with the 12 samples that proved positive, six of which belonged to Lance Armstrong.

BLOCK: There seem to be a lot of questions being raised over whether these retests that were done on these samples could be reliable so long after the fact, whether EPO degrades over time, how stable it would be. Couldn't these be false positives, in other words?

Mr. PELKEY: Well, I'm not exactly sure if they could be a false positive. I think the explanation that the director of the lab gave was that the only problem that they would encounter testing old samples like this is the false negative and that both naturally occurring and synthetic erythropoietin would degrade in a sample. But he insists that the degradation wasn't as great as originally expected and that they were, in fact, able to distinguish between synthetic and naturally occurring EPO.

BLOCK: I guess there would then be questions about whether there was contamination, whether the samples may have gotten mixed up, things like that.

Mr. PELKEY: I would suspect that this entire case is going to be reviewed very carefully before anybody takes any action on it.

BLOCK: This newspaper that published these charges is owned by the same company that runs the Tour de France. You now have the director of the Tour de France saying in L'Equipe of this 1999 race, `We were all fooled,' and he's calling on Lance Armstrong to explain himself.

Mr. PELKEY: Yeah. Jean-Marie Leblanc, the outgoing director of the Tour de France, has said that he's convinced by what he's seen. And he's now demanding some sort of explanation; that Armstrong cycling fans around the world deserve an explanation.

BLOCK: If these tests do hold up in some way, is there any possible disciplinary action that would be taken against Lance Armstrong?

Mr. PELKEY: I think there's a big question about that right now. Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, conceded immediately that there really wasn't much that that agency could do, and he said that the ball was essentially back in the court of the sports governing body, the UCI. The Tour de France could conceivably change the record book. I think the most immediate impact may be the number of civil suits that Lance Armstrong's involved in right now, including a lawsuit against the authors of a book, who made similar accusations a year ago, and an insurance company that has declined to pay a $5 million payout for winning his sixth tour.

BLOCK: Charles Pelkey of VeloNews, thanks very much.

Mr. PELKEY: Thank you.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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