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Panel strips Landis of his Tour de France title

September 21, 2007|Michael A. Hiltzik | 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.

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