Former International Cycling Union (UCI) Presidents Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid colluded with Lance Armstrong to help him avoid being caught for doping, a damning new report published today has claimed.
The report also discovered that some of Armstrong's closest allies helped Verbruggen, head of the UCI between 1991 and 2005, a period which covered all of the American's seven consecutive Tour de France victories, in his row with then World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) chairman Richard Pound.
The 227-page report published by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) into the UCI and the sport's doping culture claims that an letter open signed by Verbruggen to Pound in January 2004 was drafted by the Dutchman and Armstrong's agent.
The €3 million (£2 million/£3.2 million) report, compiled by Dr Dick Marty, a Swiss politician and former state prosecutor, had been commissioned by new UCI President Brian Cookson after he was elected to replace McQuaid two years ago following election where the Irishman is accused of breaching numerous rules, just as he had been when first been handpicked by Verbruggen to replace him in 2005.
Marty was supported by German Professor Ulrich Haas, an expert in anti-doping, and Peter Nicholson, a former Australian military officer who specialises in criminal investigations.
But the main focus of the report is the era during which Armstrong was dominant, thanks to a doping regime based largely upon the use of erythropoietin (EPO) and other designer drugs which helped him become the most successful rider in the history of the sport.
Verbruggen used the emergence of Armstrong as an opportunity to help rebuild the sport ad his own position following the scandal at the 1998 Tour de France when a series of riders and teams were discovered by the police to have used drugs and trafficked them around Europe, the report claimed.
"The UCI saw Armstrong as the perfect choice to lead the sport's renaissance after the Festina scandal: the fact he was American opened up a new continent for the sport, he had beaten cancer and the media made him a global star," the report said.
"The UCI president (sic) recognised that this was a good opportunity to bolster the organisation's plans for growth and, above all, his ambitions for power."
The report's conclusion is the UCI's relationship with Armstrong could not be described as corrupt but it nevertheless leaves Verbruggen's reputation in tatters and must leave his position as an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in serious doubt.
Verbruggen was an influential member of the IOC between 1996 and 2008, leading the Evaluation Commission for the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing.
The CIRC report exposes Verbruggen as an autocratic leader who used his position to help protect the top cyclists, especially Arrmstrong, allegedly getting personally involved on a number of occasions when it appeared he would be caught and exposed.
The conspiracy dated back to Armstrong's first Tour de France victory, in 1999, when doctors provided a backdated prescription for cortisone, action taken only after "direct contact was initiated between high-level UCI officials and the Armstrong entourage, during which the latter was advised to produce a medical certificate".
Verbruggen continued to exert influence over the UCI even when he stood down to be replaced in 2005 by McQuaid, who continued to give Armstrong special treatment.
The CIRC report does not find any evidence that Verbruggen and McQuaid were bribed by Armstrong to cover up positive tests in 2001 at the Tour of Switzerland when the WADA-accredited laboratory in Lausanne reported they had found "strong suspicion of the presence of recombinant erythropoietin" in his urine samples, although all were ultimately reported as negative.
The UCI, nevertheless, asked for and accepted two large donations from Armstrong, and inquired about a more regular gift as late as 2008, the CRIC report claimed.
The report discovered that following one investigation 10 years ago that Armstrong had used EPO during his 1999 Tour de France victory after a report in French newspaper l'Equipe his lawyer Mark Levinstein was heavily involved in helping the UCI draft the report submitted by Dutch anti-doping specialist Emile Vrijman which cleared the Texan.
CIRC claimed Levinstein "inserted substantial amounts of text...to make [the interim report] more critical of Wada (sic) and criticising in detail the credibility of the [French doping agency]'s methods and procedures, citing numerous alleged deficiencies".
Verbruggen had always denied that Armstrong's team had been involved in the report.
The CIRC wrote in its report that "the suspicions of doping were sufficient to justify target testing Lance Armstrong by all competent agencies. UCI should have...been circumspect in its relations with the athlete. However, the CIRC considers that former [UCI] presidents actually initiated a special relationship with Lance Armstrong and failed to establish a more distant relationship...Special consideration was allowed for Lance Armstrong and, to return the favour, Lance Armstrong was used in UCI's battles against various third parties on different fronts."
Besides Pound, a vocal critic of the UCI's doping policies under fellow IOC member Verbruggen, which led to a lawsuit being filed by the Dutchman before it was settled out-of-court in 2009, the CIRC report found the world governing body worked closely with Armstrong's lawyers in legal disputes with The Sunday Times and its journalist David Walsh.
They also helped Armstrong in his court battle against insurance company SCA, who had refused to pay him bonuses for winning the Tour de France following suspicions that he was doping.
Armstrong successfully sued the company to get the money he claimed he was owed.
Armstrong, Verbruggen, McQuaid, Pound and Cookson were among 174 people to talk to the CIRC over a period of 13 times and were prepared to be publicly named.
Following the publication of the report Armstrong issued a statement which said: "I am grateful to CIRC for seeking the truth and allowing me to assist in that search.
"I am deeply sorry for many things I have done.
"However, it is my hope that revealing the truth will lead to a bright, dope-free future for the sport I love."
Verbruggen, claimed the report was unfair.
"There is a lot of what we could have done better, but that's easy to say 25 years later," he told Dutch news agency ANP.
"And there is a lot of criticism of me; I was a dictator and was too close to Armstrong.
"They had obviously come up with something."
One of the most worrying aspects of the report for Cookson will be that many riders interviewed fear doping is still part of the sport today with cyclists micro-dosing, taking small but regular amounts of banned substance, to fool the latest detection methods.
The Briton, though, promised he will act upon the findings of the report.
"It is clear that in the past the UCI suffered severely from a lack of good governance with individuals taking crucial decisions alone," he said.
"Many [of these decisions] undermined anti-doping efforts; put the UCI in an extraordinary position of proximity to certain riders; and wasted a lot of its time and resources in open conflict with organisations such as the World Anti-Doping Agency and US Anti-Doping Agency.
"It is also clear that the UCI leadership interfered in operational decisions on anti-doping matters and these factors, as well as many more covered in the report, served to erode confidence in the UCI and the sport.
"I am absolutely determined to use the CIRC's report to ensure that cycling continues the process of fully regaining the trust of fans, broadcasters and all the riders that compete clean."
To read the full CIRC report click here.
Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]
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