Science & Environment

Three doctors charged in Armstrong doping case

Lance Armstrong 2005 tour
Image caption Another yellow jersey for Lance Armstrong on the road to his final tour victory in 2005.

One unusual aspect of the doping case brought against Lance Armstrong is that three doctors have been charged in addition to the champion cyclist.

The United States anti-doping agency (USADA) says that Armstrong and the doctors were involved in a "pervasive pattern of doping".

The seven-time Tour de France winner vehemently denies the charges.

But experts say that if proven the case would signal that responsibility for doping no longer stops at the athlete.

Respected anti-doping scientist Dr Michael Ashenden told BBC News that the case marked a significant change.

"It is no longer enough to stop at the athlete, but instead authorities are now seeking to investigate further and root out the doctors, support staff and drug dealers who make doping possible."

USADA has sent a 15-page letter to Lance Armstrong and five others detailing the range of the charges and some of the evidence against them.

They claim that over a period of 14 years, Armstrong, the doctors and others engaged in a large-scale conspiracy to dope. The letter lists six forms of doping with which the cyclist allegedly cheated, ranging from the abuse of erythropoietin (EPO) through to methods such as blood transfusions and saline infusions.

Three former cycling team doctors, Dr Luis del Moral, Dr Pedro Celaya and Dr Michele Ferrari are charged with possession, trafficking and the administration of doping materials and methods.

While the doctors haven't commented Lance Armstrong issued a strong denial of involvement in doping or in any conspiracy to dope.

"Although USADA alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy extended over more than 16 years, I am the only athlete it has chosen to charge," Armstrong said in a statement.

"USADA's malice, its methods, its star-chamber practices, and its decision to punish first and adjudicate later all are at odds with our ideals of fairness and fair play."

But Dr Michael Ashenden told BBC News that if Armstrong and his colleagues were found to have been part of a conspiracy to facilitate the culture of doping within cycling "a culture which flushed that sport down the toilet for a generation of clean riders" then they needed to be brought to account.

"It would send the strongest possible message to the current crop of doping facilitators that they are not beyond reach."

Long time coming

Experts in the field say that doping has continued to plague sport because down the years because there has been far too much focus on the activities of the athletes and not on the scientists and medical personnel behind them.

Image caption Mr Armstrong has issued a strong denial of the charges

Dr Robin Parisotto is a former Australian Institute of Sport scientist who was the principal researcher of the EPO 2000 Project which developed the first ever blood tests to be used at the Olympic games to detect the blood booster EPO.

"The signs have been around for decades that doping was an organised practice and blind Freddy could see that the plethora of drugs, let alone the interactions between them, predicted that doctors would have to be consciously involved.

"Where the evidence stacks up, the proverbial book should be thrown at these 'hypocritical' docs and those responsible for facilitating the purchase and distribution of [the] drug," he told BBC News.

Athlete as victim

Other scientists in the field argue the only doping that really works is the type of large-scale sophisticated cheating that involves many more people than just the athlete.

They point to examples including Operacion Puerto, the systematic doping of dozens of cyclists and other competitors famously organised in Spain, or the Balco case that involved a number of athletes including Marion Jones and Britain's Dwayne Chambers.

In these circumstances, the athlete needs to be seen as a victim as well says Dr Perikles Simon, professor of sports medicine at the University of Mainz in Germany.

"The public will hopefully understand soon that because of professional doping, support systems like the organised doping in the former East Germany - the organised doping in case of Balco, the organised doping in certain Tour de France teams, the athletes that dope are not only cheaters, but are also victims of professional systems that, for the sake of profit, corrupt sports.

"These systems severely put under pressure or even directly or indirectly force the so called 'youth of the world' to risk their health and life in order to compete."

Betsy Andreu, the wife of former Armstrong team mate Frankie Andreu, told BBC News that enhancing performance is no longer something an athlete can do on their own.

"I think it's not about the individual, it's about many people. An athlete can't do it by themselves, you have to have support," she said.

More on this story