Although some have made light of it, Lance Armstrong's latest run-in with French anti-doping authorities is no joke.
At worse, the French say, they have the power to suspend the seven-time Tour de France champion from competing in the country for supposedly having kept a drug tester waiting. That would certainly take the shine off Armstrong's comeback that has pulled in publicity and crowds for his battered sport.
Even if it doesn't come to sanctions, the French anti-doping agency's suggestion that Armstrong didn't cooperate fully with their tester could again mean that he'll compete at this year's Tour under a cloud. Unless, of course, the claims cause him to simply throw up his hands and say, "You know what? Forget your Tour. I don't need this." He's dropped that hint before.
Armstrong vs. the French, Round II. Seems we're right back where we were in 2005, when he quit the sport _ temporarily as it turned out _ railing against the "cynics and the skeptics" who simply don't buy the tale of the cyclist who survived cancer to win the world's toughest bike race a record seven years in a row _ without, he insists, using illegal drugs.
Armstrong's push this year for an eighth Tour title was meant to be the highlight of his return after a three-year hiatus. But instead, if the contentious drug-test affair is still unresolved by then, he could spend time in July having to answer yet more doping questions. It is not the good publicity he hoped for when he climbed back in the saddle to spread the word about fighting cancer and to see whether, at age 37, he's still a winner. The prospect for fans of cycling and of Armstrong _ often two diametrically opposed groups of people _ is confusion. There is such bad blood between Armstrong and the French agency and such wide differences in their accounts of what happened on March 17, when the agency dispatched its most trusted tester to knock on the rider's door, that we may never feel that we have gotten the whole truth.
Again, it could come down to who you believe: Armstrong or skeptical French officials who doubt his exploits and have suggested but never proved that he cheated in the past.
This time, both sides can be faulted.
Keeping a tester waiting is a big deal, invariably raising suspicions that an athlete might be hiding something, maybe that he needed a few minutes in the toilet to mask traces of doping. Armstrong's been in cycling since he was a teenager. He claims to be one of the most tested athletes on the planet. And he has long suspected that some in France have it in for him. So one might think that he'd have been extra, extra careful not to put even a toe wrong when he went to the south of France in March to train. With hindsight, the smart thing to have said when the tester appeared, asking for urine, blood and hair samples, might have been "Come right in. I'll roll up my sleeve for the needle right now." Instead, Armstrong says the testing was delayed for 20 minutes while his team manager, Johan Bruyneel, checked that the tester was bona fide and not "just some French guy with a backpack and some equipment." Armstrong says the tester let him go inside and shower while Bruyneel made his calls.
Armstrong says one reason he questioned the man's authority was, "I was unaware that in France the government tests athletes and takes the position it can test any athlete residing in or visiting France."
Ignorance is not a solid defense.
For its part, the agency can be questioned about the glee with which it announced that it had cornered Armstrong for the unannounced test. This wasn't merely about seeing whether Armstrong is clean, it was a message: In France, you're on our turf and you'll get no special treatment.
"He needs to know that he is like everyone else," said the agency's president, Pierre Bordry, which sounds distinctly as if Armstrong was specifically targeted and therefore is not simply like everyone else.
For this big fish, the agency sent a man with 15 years of testing experience who teaches other would-be testers about the job and who has worked at the Tour, the Rugby World Cup and the athletics world championships, according to a French official closely connected to the affair, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
At the agency, the version of events is that only when the tester threatened to call in gendarmes did Bruyneel agree to let testing proceed, and the French official pooh-poohed Armstrong's claim that the tester let him shower. The agency says the tester reported that he repeatedly warned Armstrong that he had to keep him within his sight at all times.
The agency says it hasn't yet decided to launch disciplinary proceedings.
But Bordry seemed to hint that it might, saying he didn't want to comment because "we are entering into a contentious phase, or likely to be contentious."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicesterap.org