AUSTIN, Texas – COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency stripped Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles Friday, erasing one of the most incredible achievements in sports after deciding he had used performance-enhancing drugs to do it.
Armstrong, who retired a year ago, was also hit with a lifetime ban from cycling. An athlete who became a hero to thousands for overcoming cancer and for his foundation’s fight against the disease is now officially a drug cheat in the eyes of his nation’s doping agency.
In a written statement, the USADA said Armstrong’s decision not to take the charges against him to arbitration triggers the lifetime ineligibility and forfeiture of all results from Aug. 1, 1998, through the present, which would include the Tour de France titles he won from 1999 through 2005.
Armstrong has strongly denied doping and contends USADA was on a “witch hunt” without any physical evidence against him.
Armstrong on Thursday night dropped any further challenges to USADA's allegations that he took performance-enhancing drugs to win cycling's premier event from 1999-2005.
Armstrong said the USADA doesn't have the authority to vacate his Tour titles. However, agency chief executive Travis Tygart told The Associated Press that USADA can do it.
Tygart called the Armstrong case a "heartbreaking" example of a win-at-all costs approach to sports.
Armstrong, who retired last year, declined to enter arbitration – his last option – because he said he was weary of fighting accusations that have dogged him for years. He has consistently pointed to the hundreds of drug tests that he has passed as proof of his innocence.
"There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough.' For me, that time is now," Armstrong said in a statement sent to The Associated Press. He called the USADA investigation an "unconstitutional witch hunt."
"I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999," he said. "The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense."
Armstrong insisted his decision is not an admission of drug use, but a refusal to enter an arbitration process he believes is improper and unfair to athletes facing charges.
"USADA cannot assert control of a professional international sport and attempt to strip my seven Tour de France titles," he said. "I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours."
The USADA maintains that Armstrong has used banned substances as far back as 1996, including the blood-booster EPO and steroids as well as blood transfusions – all to boost his performance.
Armstrong, 40, walked away from the sport in 2011 without being charged following a two-year federal criminal investigation into many of the same accusations he faces from USADA. The federal probe was closed in February, but USADA announced in June it had evidence Armstrong used banned substances and methods – and encouraged their use by teammates. The agency also said it had blood tests from 2009 and 2010 that were "consistent" with doping.
Armstrong sued USADA in Austin, where he lives, in an attempt to block the case and was supported by the UCI, the sport's governing body. A judge threw out the case on Monday, siding with USADA.
"USADA's conduct raises serious questions about whether its real interest in charging Armstrong is to combat doping, or if it is acting according to less noble motives," such as politics or publicity, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks wrote.
Now the ultra-competitive Armstrong has done something virtually unthinkable for him: He has quit before a fight is over.
"Today I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances. I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities," Armstrong said.
The JG's Ben Smith says there are some things you can't take away in And another thing ...