J'accuse !

by

Ilan Vardi

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The accusations brought against Lance Armstrong in L'Equipe on August 23, 2005, have no scientific or legal merit. In particular, The protocol of anonymity of samples and the requirement to test an A and B sample was designed to

·         Maintain scientific correctness

·         Protect the rights of athletes

In this case, the protocol was not followed which means that the test reported by L'Equipe has no scientific validity and that the disclosure of the results violates the rights of the athlete in question. Everyone agrees with this, since it has been acknowledged that no legal or sporting sanction can be pursued. Therefore, the L'Equipe article and its general acceptance in the French press is simply a precedent for disregarding scientific principles as well as disregarding athletes' rights. An in depth look at the ethical consequences of this incident is given in this article by Tim Maloney. Therefore, there are no facts to discuss here, only illegal methods used to tarnish the reputation of the most dominant Tour de France rider of all time.

Since no charges can be brought against Armstrong, it is clear that he has no need to defend himself against these spurious accusations. However, one can surely believe in his complete innocence. For example, it would be very risky to use EPO during the post Festina Affair Tour de France, when police raids were considered inevitable, as was expressed by his team mate Jonathan Vaughters. As he has shown in his Tour de France victories, Lance Armstrong has left very little to chance. Another reason was given by Armstrong himself: After beating cancer and making cancer research and recovery his number one goal in life, it would be ridiculous to once again put his health in danger.

If one does believe in Armstrong's innocence, then what is one to make of the positive EPO tests reported in L'Equipe? After some thought, the O.J. Simpson case comes to mind, in which the possibility of tampering with evidence was a key point leading to acquittal. However, in the O.J. Simpson case, there was so much evidence that a large number of otherwise trustworthy individuals would have had to independently decide to frame O.J. Simpson. In this case, the number of people required to tamper with the evidence is much smaller, and the possibility of wrong doing much greater, since the procedure by which L'Equipe obtained their evidence was itself fraudulent. In particular, the informant who gave them the correspondence between anonymous samples at the Chatenay Malabry laboratory is already guilty of serious breach of ethics, as is the person who allowed them to examine the Chatenay Malabry documentation, which was guaranteed anonymity for all scientific and legal purposes. Therefore, there are two people who are already guilty of serious misconduct and either one could have easily tampered with evidence in order to frame Lance Armstrong.

My suspicions about tampering in order to frame Armstrong were first raised by purely phenomenological issues: The L'Equipe article was immediately accepted as fact by the French media, indicating to me that the climate was ripe for this information to be believed without further scrutiny. As every forger knows, one sells fakes to people who desperately want to believe them real. The second element is that the revelations happened just after Armstrong's retirement, considerably decreasing the possibility of legal action on his part or by other organisations finding fault with the articles. Finally, the publication of the articles just a month after Armstrong's retirement assured that the object of the attack would not be a faded memory. In other words, the article came at a time when it would get the most attention with the least amount of formal scrutiny.

Since the testing protocol involving A and B samples and anonymity was designed to eliminate the possibility of tampering, one can no longer exclude tampering in this case, where the protocol was not followed. Moreover, tampering with a cyclist's drug sample is a distinct possibility given the fact that it has recently occured in France. In 2004, French cyclist Cedric Vasseur proved that his positive test for cocaine performed at the request of the French police was false and that his signature on a police report while in custody was forged by the police.

If one believes that tampering occurred then the natural question is the identity of the perpetrator or perpetrators. In my opinion, there is one outstanding candidate, the person who has shown the least amount of professional ethics in a profession requiring the highest standard of ethics, that is, Jacques de Ceaurriz, director of the Anti Doping laboratory of Chatenay Malabry. Indeed, he has never expressed any objection that confidential research material from his institute was surreptitiously examined by newspaper reporters. Nor has he brought up any objection that the scientific and legal protocol for proving a doping offence, in which his institute plays the central role, was totally violated. On the contrary, he provided a statement to L'Equipe that was published alongside their original articles, confirming their findings. Even this statement runs contrary to scientific ethics -- he gives a subjective opinion about the validity of the institute's EPO test on frozen samples, without having any scientific basis (no study of the validity of EPO testing on long term frozen samples exists) and without qualifying his opinion as being devoid of empirical basis. Such qualification is important in order to maintain a scientific standard of rigour and also to communicate uncertainty to laymen who might otherwise take a scientist's word as fact. However, any such qualification would completely negate the impact of his assertion that his EPO test is 100% reliable even on long frozen samples. This assertion of perfection is itself ludicrous, since it contradicts the use of a protocol involving multiple samples established exactly for the purposes of minimising the inevitable possibility of false results. Note that a scientist can be reasonably expected to give his opinion on matters which he does not fully understand, if the issues are innocuous, but not when his opinion directly harms a public personality and is stated as if it had full scientific value.

As the previous paragraph shows, Jacques de Ceaurriz has validated a newspaper article which violates the very principles on which the institute's research is based and has passed off his personal opinion as scientific fact. Therefore, I do not find it such a stretch of the imagination that he was somehow involved in tampering with samples. At the very least, I now believe it quite likely that he gave personal permission to the L'Equipe reporters to examine the privileged documents belonging to his institute. Already, this would be such a breach of ethics that it would require his immediate dismissal as director (I believe that his lack of interest in the misconduct that has occurred at his laboratory should already be grounds for disciplinary action against him). It also seems possible that he is aware of the person who gave the correspondence between the anonymous sample numbers and the athletes, probably someone at the French Cycling Federation, which is one of the only places where the correspondence between the anonymous samples and the athletes could be known.

If any one of the above conjectures is correct, then one must wonder how the director of a respected institute could get involved in such mischief. I believe that the answer, as usual, comes down to human weakness, and that the director fell victim to exactly the same temptations as the dopers he has made his living trying to catch. In particular, the director of a French research institute makes somewhere in the vicinity of $100,000 a year, a paltry figure compared to his American counterparts who make ten times as much, and laughable compared to Lance Armstrong who makes on the order of one hundred times as much. Surely this difference in finances can bear heavily on someone coming close to retirement and an investigation into his private life might provide some surprises and clues. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Institute's EPO test has been his life's work, even though he himself did not do the research, and his laboratory gained world wide notoriety with the acceptance of its test as the standard for finding EPO doping as these articles attest

However, even here his ethical standards are found wanting. Indeed, another laboratory in Lyon has accused Jacques de Ceaurriz and his laboratory of illegally appropriating the EPO test for themselves. The research leading to the EPO test was done by Francoise Lasne  first at the Hopitaux de Lyon and  then at the Chatenay Malabry laboratory. However, the Lyon laboratory applied for a patent in 1998 and Christian Collombel, the director of the Laboratoire des Hospice Civils de Lyon, has accused Jacques de Ceaurriz of appropriating the test for himself by manipulating the media. A full article is given here. Manipulation of the media in order to steal an EPO test along with the his unethical stance in the L'Equipe affair (and subsequent media attention) certainly opens the door to even more serious misconduct.

I hope that Jacques de Ceaurriz reads this article. I am certain that his reaction would be outrage at being accused without there being any tangible proof. At the very least, if he is innocent of the more serious charges I bring up, he would realise the difficult position Armstrong has been put in as a result of the L'Equipe articles, which de Ceaurriz has supported against all the principles of his profession.  Moreover, he would realise that any defence he brings up could be used to defend Lance Armstrong, since any procedural gaps in my accusations are already present in the L’Equipe articles which he supports.

When I first saw the L'Equipe article, my reaction was that France had found a new Dreyfus.  Indeed, over a century ago, France was not ready to believe that a Jew could have a successful and honest military career, and in 2005 France cannot accept an American with a successful and honest Tour de France career.  Even when he was completely disgraced, Dreyfus still declared “Vive la France !” just as Armstrong himself, in response to his media critics, declared “Vive le Tour !” just one month ago. No, what France needs now is a new Zola.

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