Panel strips Landis of his Tour de France title

Times Staff Writer

A divided three-member arbitration panel Thursday upheld the doping accusation against 2006 Tour de France champion Floyd Landis, stripping the American cyclist of his title in the sport’s marquee race despite finding numerous errors of procedure and “sloppy practice” by the French laboratory that analyzed his samples.

Some of the errors were so troubling, the panel said in its 84-page ruling, that “if such practices continue,” they may result in the dismissal of an anti-doping case in the future. But in this case, the panel found by a vote of 2 to 1 that the errors were not sufficient to invalidate the lab’s conclusion that Landis had taken synthetic testosterone at a crucial stage of the race.

The panel also imposed a two-year ban from competition on the 31-year-old Murrieta-based cyclist. The ban was dated from Jan. 30, when he voluntarily agreed to withdraw from racing while his case was under review, and will end Jan. 29, 2009.

The majority verdict was challenged in a blistering 26-page dissent by the third arbitrator, Christopher Campbell, a Bay Area attorney and former Olympic wrestler. Campbell argued that at a nine-day public hearing in May, Landis had proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the lab was “not trustworthy” and “failed to abide by its legal and ethical obligations.” He said Landis should be found innocent.


Landis, in a statement issued by his attorneys, maintained that the shortcomings in lab procedures disclosed during the hearing established that the case against him was fatally flawed. He called the ruling “a blow to athletes and cyclists everywhere.”

“I am innocent, and we proved I am innocent,” he said.

But Travis T. Tygart, chief executive of the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which functioned as the prosecution in the case, said the ruling was “a victory for all clean athletes and everyone who values fair and honest competition.” He called the case against Landis “just another sad example of the crisis of character which plagues some of today’s athletes.”

In Paris, Tour de France Director Christian Prudhomme declared the 2006 runner-up, Oscar Pereiro of Spain, the race champion. According to Agence France-Presse, Prudhomme said the arbitrators’ verdict “just confirms what we knew. He cheated; he is punished.”

Landis’ attorney, Maurice Suh of the Los Angeles firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, labeled the ruling “a miscarriage of justice.” He said the cyclist and his defense team were “weighing all our options,” including possibly seeking a review of the case in federal court or pursuing an appeal to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Practically speaking, however, Landis’ options are constrained and costly. Courts have been reluctant to intervene in arbitration proceedings except in cases of manifest unfairness or corruption. Although Landis could seek to have the verdict overturned, it is unclear whether a U.S. court ruling could force the Tour de France to reinstate his title.

An appeal to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport would involve a new set of legal motions and a new hearing, which would be likely to strain the racer’s financial resources. Landis has said that his legal expenses in the case have exceeded $2 million, some of which he raised in a public appeal.

“It involves a lot of expense, financial and emotional,” Suh said.

The panel’s ruling marks a milestone in one of the highest-profile cases brought under the current anti-doping system in sports, which was created in 2000. Uniquely among accused athletes, Landis insisted on a public hearing and on posting the evidence against him online, where it could be minutely picked over by members of the public with legal or scientific expertise. Many of them cited flaws in the lab’s procedure that Landis’ defense later raised before the arbitrators.

The process subjected the program and the Paris lab to unprecedented scrutiny, raising expectations that the World Anti-Doping Agency might address criticisms that its program relies on dubious science, erratic lab technique and inadequate legal protections for athletes. Whether it will do so, given its victory Thursday, is uncertain. In a statement issued from its Montreal headquarters, the agency said it would review the decision, but make no further comment while Landis considers whether to appeal.

Nevertheless, Thursday’s decision may spur considerable discussion about the legal and scientific standards employed by the anti-doping agency. In an unprecedented step, the arbitration panel majority acknowledged that the agency’s procedural rules may unduly favor prosecutors over athletes. The rules require arbitrators to presume that anti-doping labs, which are accredited by the anti-doping agency, performed their analyses properly.

This gives the agency’s labs, including the Paris lab that analyzed Landis’ sample, “a shelter from the standards of other types of labs,” the majority wrote, suggesting that as a consequence those labs may be held to too lenient a standard for performance and accuracy. But the panel concluded that the issue was outside its jurisdiction.

Campbell disagreed, arguing in his dissent that by designing a system to facilitate guilty verdicts, the anti-doping agency had violated athletes’ rights.

“WADA should be writing rules that mandate the highest scientific standards rather than rules for a race to the bottom of scientific reliability so convictions can be easily obtained,” he wrote.

The issue is critical because the core of Landis’ defense was an attack on the integrity and performance of the Laboratoire National de Depistage du Dopage, or LNDD, the French government anti-doping lab that ruled Landis’ urine sample from Stage 17 of the 2006 race positive for testosterone use.

Defense experts testified to a raft of operational errors by the French lab, including improper identification of the samples, “cherry-picking” of results to tilt them toward a positive finding, and faulty operation of its analytical equipment.

The laboratory documentation, they said, included numerous gaps and deletions that could not be fully explained by the lab’s technicians.

The arbitrators acknowledged the existence of many of those errors, and found that they were sufficient to invalidate one set of the lab’s findings -- a preliminary screen that found the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in Landis’ urine exceeded 4 to 1, the anti-doping agency’s benchmark for doping accusations. But it found that, taken individually, the errors were insufficient to invalidate the lab’s findings on a subsequent, purportedly more sophisticated test based on differences in carbon isotope ratios found in natural and synthetic testosterone.

When confronted by direct disagreements between expert witnesses for the defense and prosecution, the panel majority repeatedly accepted the judgment of the latter -- three of whom were directors of World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited labs and a fourth who had received a WADA grant.

Suh said Thursday that by weighing every asserted error individually, the majority overlooked the cumulative impact of a string of mistakes committed by the Laboratoire National de Depistage du Dopage. “This was never a case about one or two problems, no matter how severe,” he said, “but the terrible effect of a series of them.”

Campbell endorsed that view in his dissent. The combination of documented errors, undocumented analytical steps and deletions of data “render any results from tests done on those samples unreliable,” he said. “Given the plethora of laboratory errors in this case, there was certainly no scientific evidence introduced to find that Mr. Landis committed a doping offense.”




A wild ride

A look at how American cyclist Floyd Landis’ case has evolved:


* July 20: Entering the 17th stage of the Tour de France, Landis is more than eight minutes behind leader Oscar Pereiro after losing the yellow jersey to the Spaniard the previous day. But Landis jumps from 11th place to third, cutting Pereiro’s lead to 30 seconds. Jean-Marie Leblanc, then director of the Tour, calls it “the best performance in the modern history of the Tour.”

* July 23: Landis wins the Tour, capping one of the greatest comebacks in cycling history.

* July 27: Landis’ Phonak team announces he has tested positive for high levels of testosterone. Landis says “we will explain to the world why this is not a doping case but a natural occurrence.” The explanations offered include dehydration, whiskey and beer, and natural metabolism.

* Aug. 5: The International Cycling Union confirms the positive test. Phonak fires Landis.

* Sept. 9: Landis’ lawyer wants U.S. doping authorities to drop their case against Landis, contending there were “inconsistencies” in the way the tests were handled by the French lab.

* Sept. 23: A review board recommends the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency move forward in the disciplinary process against Landis.

* Sept. 27: Tour de France chief Patrice Clerc calls Landis a cheat who discredited cycling’s showcase race.

* Oct. 12: Landis takes his case to the public with an online presentation with key elements of his defense.

* Nov. 12: In a French TV interview, Landis insists the French laboratory at Chatenay-Malabry made errors in testing.


* Feb. 8: The French anti-doping agency postpones a decision on whether to suspend Landis after he agrees not to race in the country this year.

* Feb. 23: Landis says more mistakes were made by lab technicians who handled his two positive urine samples because the same technicians were allowed to work on both samples, a breach of lab rules.

* April 12: The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says it will test backup urine samples from Landis. Besides Stage 17, all the other samples Landis provided during the race came back negative.

* April 23: The backup samples reveal traces of synthetic testosterone, newspaper L’Equipe reports. Landis renews his verbal attack on the French lab.

* May 10: Landis contends that USADA’s lead attorney approached his lawyer offering “the shortest suspension they’d ever given an athlete” if Landis provided information implicating Lance Armstrong in doping.

* May 14: Landis’ arbitration hearing begins in Malibu.

* May 17: The hearing takes a chaotic twist when three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond reveals he was sexually abused as a child and alleges Landis’ camp tried to use the information as blackmail to stop him from testifying.

* May 18: Will Geoghegan, former manager for Landis, acknowledges making a threatening phone call to LeMond.

* May 19: Landis takes the witness stand. “It’s a matter of who I am,” Landis says. “It wouldn’t serve any purpose for me to cheat and win the Tour, because I wouldn’t be proud of it.”

* May 22: Landis, under cross-examination, regrets not firing Geoghegan immediately after he made the call to LeMond.

* May 24: Hearing ends.

* Sept. 20: Arbitrators uphold results of a test that showed Landis used synthetic testosterone during the 2006 Tour. Panel rules he must forfeit his Tour title and is subject to a two-year ban. Pereiro is declared champion of the 2006 Tour. Landis has a month to file an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Source: the Associated Press