Lance Armstrong is going to federal court in the fight to save his seven Tour de France titles and his reputation as one of the greatest cyclists ever.
Armstrong filed a lawsuit Monday aimed at preventing the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency from moving ahead with charges that he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout much of his long career.
The suit claims USADA rules violate athletes' constitutional right to a fair trial, and that the agency doesn't have jurisdiction in his case. It also accuses USADA's chief executive, Travis Tygart, of waging a personal vendetta against the cancer survivor who won the Tour de France every year from 1999 to 2005.
The lawsuit is an aggressive, and expected, move as Armstrong seeks to preserve his racing legacy and his place as an advocate for cancer survivors and research. He wants a judge to bar USADA from pursuing its case or issuing any sanctions against him.
Legal experts were divided on the strength of Armstrong's case.
"USADA is a unique agency, far from perfect ... but that doesn't necessarily means it's unconstitutional," said Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School. "He makes some good points, but his chances for success are less than likely."
An Armstrong victory in court, however, could shake USADA to its core, said Michael Straubel, law professor and director of the Sports Law Clinic at Valparaiso University.
Straubel, who has represented athletes with doping cases before USADA, called Armstrong's lawsuit a "strong case" for greater protection for athletes.
"This is huge. It has tremendous implications for USADA. I really hope USADA thought all this through before it got things started," Straubel said.
Armstrong asked the court to issue an injunction by Saturday, his deadline to formally challenge the case against him in USADA's arbitration process or accept the agency's sanctions. He could receive a lifetime ban from cycling and be stripped of his Tour de France victories if found guilty. He originally faced a Monday deadline but USADA allows athletes to request an automatic five-day extension.
Armstrong insists he is innocent.
"The process [USADA] seek to force upon Lance Armstrong is not a fair process and truth is not its goal," his lawsuit says, calling the USADA process a corrupt "kangaroo court."
Tygart said Armstrong's lawsuit is "aimed at concealing the truth" and predicted a judge will rule in the agency's favour.
"USADA was built by athletes on the principles of fairness and integrity," Tygart said in a statement. "We are confident the courts will continue to uphold the established rules which provide full constitutional due process and are designed to protect the rights of clean athletes and the integrity of sport."
USADA, created in 2000 and recognized by Congress as the official anti-doping agency for Olympic sports in the United States, formally charged Armstrong in June with taking performance-enhancing drugs and participating in a vast doping conspiracy on his Tour de France winning teams, some of which were sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service.
The charges came after a two-year federal criminal investigation of Armstrong ended in February with no charges filed. The anti-doping agency, however, says up to 10 former teammates and associates are willing to testify against him and that it has blood samples from 2009-2010 that are "fully consistent" with doping.
Passing drug tests
Armstrong, who retired in 2011, says he has passed more than 500 drug tests in his career and was never flagged for a positive test.
His lawsuit makes several arguments:
- The agency's rules and arbitration are designed to find athletes guilty. Athletes are not allowed to subpoena documents or compel witnesses to testify in a hearing. USADA has so far withheld the names of most of the witnesses against Armstrong, saying it is protecting them from potential intimidation.
- The International Cycling Union, cycling's governing body which licensed Armstrong to ride professionally, should have jurisdiction over the allegations. Armstrong says allegations of doping by him and his team that were first raised by admitted drug-user Floyd Landis in 2010 should be addressed by UCI.
- USADA may have violated federal law if it coerced witness testimony against him with deals to reduce punishments for riders facing doping charges. Media reports last week said former Armstrong teammates George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde, who are all riding in this year's Tour de France, may be witnesses against him.
- Tygart and officials with the World Anti-Doping Agency have recklessly pursued Armstrong for several years in a personal quest to catch him despite Armstrong's hundreds of negative drug tests. Tygart was named a co-defendant in the lawsuit.
In a twist, Armstrong is arguing against rules that his personal manager, Bill Stapleton, helped draft when he was a board member of the U.S. Olympic Committee and served as the chairman of the athletes' advisory council.
Armstrong's representatives have said those rules were written to deal with cases of athletes facing positive drug tests and lab results, not a case like Armstrong's where the evidence is weighted toward anecdotal witness testimony.
To be successful on his constitutional claims, Armstrong must show that USADA is acting as a government agency, Straubel said. The lawsuit notes that USADA is mostly funded by the federal government and that some of the evidence against him was collected during the federal criminal investigation.
"There have been claims the whole time USADA has been operating that these are criminal-type charges," Straubel said. "If [USADA is] declared a state actor, it changes a lot of the rules that athletes operate under."
USADA could ask the court to allow its arbitration process to go ahead, requiring Armstrong to raise his claims after a decision is made. But Armstrong's lawsuit predicts he can't win in a system stacked against him, and says he needs the courts to step in now.
"It is a testament to USADA's brazenness and callous disregard for its own mission that it seeks to strip Mr. Armstrong of his life's work," the lawsuit says.
Also charged by USADA are former Armstrong team manager Johan Bruyneel and several team doctors and associates. None of them are included in Armstrong's lawsuit, but they could be affected by any legal decision because USADA consolidated their charges with Armstrong's.
There was no immediate indication when a judge would rule. The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Austin.