Report clears Armstrong of '99 doping allegations

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- Lance Armstrong called it a "witch hunt" from the very beginning, saying a French newspaper used dubious evidence to accuse him of doping -- even charging that lab officials mishandled his samples and broke the rules.

According to a Dutch investigator's findings released Wednesday, he may have been right.

The report, commissioned late last year by the International Cycling Union, cleared the record seven-time Tour de France champion of allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his first win in 1999.

It said tests on urine samples were conducted improperly and fell so short of scientific standards that it was "completely irresponsible" to suggest they "constitute evidence of anything."

The investigation also concluded that the French laboratory that handled the samples and the World Anti-Doping Agency "violated applicable rules on athlete confidentiality by commenting publicly on the alleged positive findings."

The report recommended convening a tribunal to discuss possible legal and ethical violations by WADA, which is headed by Dick Pound, and to consider "appropriate sanctions to remedy the violations."

The French sports daily L'Equipe reported in August that six of Armstrong's urine samples taken in 1999 came back positive for the endurance-boosting hormone EPO when they were retested in 2004.

Armstrong has repeatedly denied using banned substances.

In a statement Wednesday, he said he was pleased that the investigation confirms "what I have been saying since this witch hunt began: Dick Pound, WADA, the French laboratory, the French Ministry of Sport, L'Equipe and the Tour de France organizers ... have been out to discredit and target me without any basis and falsely accused me of taking performance-enhancing drugs in 1999.

"Today's comprehensive report makes it clear that there is no truth to that accusation," he said.

The ICU appointed Dutch lawyer Emile Vrijman last October to investigate the handling of the urine tests by the French national anti-doping laboratory.

Vrijman said Wednesday his report "exonerates Lance Armstrong completely with respect to alleged use of doping in the 1999 Tour de France."

The 132-page report said no proper records were kept of the samples, there had been no "chain of custody" guaranteeing their integrity and there was no way of knowing whether the samples had been "spiked" with banned substances.

Pound said he hadn't received the report yet but, based on what he had read in news accounts, was critical of Vrijman's findings.

"It's clearly everything we feared. There was no interest in determining whether the samples Armstrong provided were positive or not," he told The Associated Press by telephone from Montreal.

"Whether the samples were positive or not, I don't know how a Dutch lawyer with no expertise came to a conclusion that one of the leading laboratories in the world messed up on the analysis. To say Armstrong is totally exonerated seems strange," Pound said.

Armstrong had challenged the validity of testing samples frozen six years ago and how they were handled. EPO, or erythropoietin, is a synthetic hormone that boosts the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Testing for EPO only began in 2001.

"The report confirms my innocence but also finds that Mr. Pound along with the French lab and the French ministry have ignored the rules and broken the law," Armstrong said.

Vrijman said a tribunal should be created to "provide a fair hearing" to the people and organizations suspected of misconduct and to decide on sanctions if warranted.

In a statement separate from Pound's comments, WADA expressed "grave concern and strong disappointment" over Vrijman's reported comments.

"WADA continues to stress its concern that an investigation into the matter must consider all aspects -- not limited to how the damaging information regarding athletes' urine samples became public but also addressing the question of whether anti-doping rules were violated by athletes," the statement said.