The US Anti Doping Agency said on Friday that it has stripped cyclist Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles.
The announcement comes after Armstrong ended his fight against the agency’s allegations that he used banned substances.
Armstrong refused to enter into arbitration with the USADA after failing in his bid to get a federal court to stop the agency from punishing him.
The Texan, who retired last year, has also been banned from cycling for life.
He maintains his innocence, pointing to hundreds of passed drug tests. The 40-year-old also questioned whether USADA has the authority to take away his Tour titles.
In a statement, Armstrong stressed that there was no physical evidence to support what he called “outlandish and heinous claims”.
He said he would jump at the chance to put the allegations to rest once and for all, but refused to participate in the USADA process, which he called “one-sided and unfair”.
The US Anti Doping Agency has based its case on eyewitness accounts that Armstrong, along with other leading Tour de France cyclists, were injecting themselves with the blood booster EPO, testosterone and other performance-enhancing drugs.
While Armstrong is only one among several Tour de France champions accused of doping, he is by far the most prominent.
“It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes,” Travis Tygart, USADA’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.
“This is a heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture of sport, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe and honest competition, but for clean athletes, it is a reassuring reminder that there is hope for future generations to compete on a level playing field without the use of performance-enhancing drugs.”
The International Cycling Union, which governs the sport, had repeatedly called for the case to be dropped. It said it will not comment on the USADA decision until it gets the full reasoned decision.
WADA: only conclusion is Armstrong is a ‘drug cheat’
World Anti-Doping Agency chief John Fahey said: “He had the right to rip up those charges but he elected not to, therefore the only interpretation in these circumstances is that there was substance in those charges.”
“I’m not going to attempt to understand why he’s done that … I can only take it as it stands – that it leads only to the conclusion that he is a drug cheat.
“My understanding is that when the evidence is based upon a career that included seven Tour de France wins then all of that becomes obliterated.”
‘The axe has fallen’
“Armstrong personified impunity. He was seen as too well protected to fall. So the big message today is that impunity is over,” said Damien Ressiot, a sports reporter who published the first doping allegations against Armstrong in the sporting daily L’Equipe seven years ago to the day.
“What is a shame is that by saying he accepts the decision, Armstrong will avoid a public debate so we’ll never know exactly what happened and how he was able to cheat for so long.”
“The axe has fallen,” wrote daily newspaper Le Figaro in its online edition. “Some people will be furious but others will see justice being done.”
Le Monde said Armstrong’s downfall should serve as a turning point for the sport. “Saint Armstrong, pierced with arrows, has finally succumbed,” the newspaper said in an editorial. “This illustrates anew that this sport is poisoned by doping.”
Former German cyclist Jan Ullrich, who finished runner-up to Lance Armstrong three times in the Tour de France, said he was proud of his second places and indifferent as to whether he was handed the American’s titles.
“I’ve ended my career and I have always said that I’m proud of my second places,” Ullrich, runner-up to Armstrong in 2000, 2001 and 2003, told the Deutsche Presse Agentur. “It doesn’t really bother me that much.”
Ullrich, Tour champion in 1997, was himself found guilty of doping by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in February, in relation to the Operation Puerto blood-doping scandal that engulfed cycling six years ago.
He was banned for two years and CAS annulled his results from 2005 until his retirement two years later.
The other riders to finish second to Armstrong were Alex Zuelle of Switzerland (1999), Joseba Beloki of Spain (2002), German Andreas Kloeden (2004) and Italian Ivan Basso (2005).
Zuelle was part of the Festina team thrown out of the 1998 Tour de France after team manager Bruno Roussel confessed the existence of “an organised doping system.”
Basso was banned for two years in 2007 for his involvement in Spain’s Operation Puerto scandal.