Since its creation in October 2000, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has withstood numerous legal challenges from cyclists, sprinters and other Olympic athletes accused of using drugs to gain an edge.
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In federal court, USADA never has been beaten. In independent arbitration hearings, USADA's record is 58-2 against athletes who have challenged the agency's evidence.
But USADA has never faced an opponent like Lance Armstrong. After being charged in June with years of using drugs and blood transfusions to improve his performance, a well-funded American sports icon is going to court against an adversary that's backed by Congress and nearly undefeated.
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In simple terms, the court case - to be heard in Armstrong's hometown of Austin - might be seen as a legal showdown over whether America's most famous cyclist cheated to win. But Armstrong is challenging USADA's authority itself, setting up a court ruling that either will affirm its power or deal a blow to the agency empowered by law to stop doping in Olympic sports.
If Armstrong loses, he'll face a difficult decision. He could appeal in court or take his shot in arbitration, potentially after persuading USADA to adjust the ground rules more to his liking. Or he could stop the fight, possibly by seeking a deal.
"The stakes are very high for both sides," said Mike Straubel, director of the Sports Law Clinic at Valparaiso University. "It's still an uphill battle (for Armstrong), but this is the best challenge I've ever seen against USADA in the federal court."
After 15 years of rumors and accusations, the case might represent Armstrong's last, best shot at beating the doping rap. He has maintained his innocence all along. To boost his case, he's hired lawyers from two top Washington, D.C., firms. Among their arguments is a new angle: They say Armstrong's rights were violated because USADA became a "state actor" when it worked side-by-side with federal investigators during a criminal probe against Armstrong that was halted this year by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"This is an extraordinary case, different from all other USADA cases. Here USADA has exactly zero positive test results. ... In addition, in this case the level of cooperation between USADA and United States government investigators has been unprecedented," Armstrong attorney Mark Fabiani said.
Armstrong's lawyers contend that makes his case different: Despite being a non-government agency, USADA behaved like a federal agency without affording him the constitutional rights he's owed in a federal proceeding.
"That argument makes Armstrong's case stronger," Straubel said. "It's never happened in other cases I've seen."
John Collins, a Chicago attorney with sports law expertise who is not connected to the case, said another element stands out in comparing Armstrong to other athletes who cried foul: "Whether this is the biggest challenge to USADA, I can't say. I suspect it is the best funded opponent USADA has faced."
Armstrong's notoriety has even sparked attention from Washington. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin publicly questioned USADA's investigation and said the agency's authority over Armstrong was "strained at best." Sen. John McCain of Arizona defended USADA, saying he supported its "fair" process to keep sports clean. Representatives of Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation also have spoken out on his behalf. After overcoming cancer, Armstrong has earned international fame for his work supporting cancer survivors.
Armstrong challenges process
Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont, said USADA faces some risk because Armstrong "is the one athlete with the popularity and financial wherewithal to take the agency on, head-to-head."
While McCann predicts the court is likely to uphold USADA's jurisdiction, he said a judge might find some of the agency's "testing methods or system of charging methods to be unconstitutional but that is different than a court saying USADA lacks jurisdiction to have any testing or any system of charging."
The legal skirmishing began in June, when USADA charged Armstrong with doping violations and gave him a choice: He could fight the charges in arbitration, or he could accept sanctions, including a likely lifetime ban and the stripping of his seven victories in the Tour de France.
Armstrong rejected the USADA process and chose another route: federal court. In an attempt to stop USADA's case, he sued the agency last week, claiming USADA lacked jurisdiction and denied him due process.
USADA counters that the process for Armstrong is the same as for every other athlete, and that the evidence against him is "overwhelming." The agency says its focus is on "ridding the sport of anyone that encourages or enables doping" to protect the integrity of competition. USADA agreed to a one-month delay as the case plays out in court.
A hearing is set for Aug. 10 before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks.
Other athletes facing doping accusations have tried unsuccessfully to challenge USADA's authority in court. A momentary victory by an athlete came in June 2008, when sprinter Justin Gatlin won a temporary injunction against the agency to lift his suspension for doping. A judge dissolved the injunction four days later, saying the federal court lacked jurisdiction to intervene in USADA's process.
"I would be very surprised if USADA lost on the question of its jurisdiction," said Steven J. Thompson, a Chicago attorney who has experience in doping cases and the USADA process.
'USADA usually wins'
If Armstrong loses in federal court, the USADA process awaits: Either accept sanctions or fight it out in arbitration, where only two athletes have won. Cyclist Jonathan Page committed a violation in 2008 because he failed to submit a sample after a race in Belgium, but the arbitration panel found he had a compelling reason because he was sick and suffered a concussion in a crash.
Sprinter LaTasha Jenkins won her arbitration case in 2008 after arguing that her doping samples had been unfairly mishandled at the lab. She had tested positive for an anabolic steroid metabolite.
"USADA usually wins in arbitration because ... there is presumption of guilt which athletes have to rebut, such as by challenging chain of custody problems," Pepperdine law professor Maureen Weston said. "That is rarely done due to lack of athlete resources and evidence."
USADA says the record reflects the strong evidence against the accused. Of USADA's 58 victories, there were only four dissenting opinions by arbitrators. The panel voted 3-0 to uphold the sanctions most of the time, even though the athlete's side picks one of the arbitrators, USADA picks a second and both sides must agree on the third. Some cases were decided by a single arbitrator at the athlete's request.
Armstrong, who has called USADA arbitration a "kangaroo court," says in his suit that the votes are typically unanimous because the pool of potential arbitrators is controlled.
Even so, the suit's arguments against the arbitration process might be premature, several legal analysts said. Armstrong is asking the court to intervene before he's even attempted arbitration, arguing that the system is biased without being able to show he has been harmed.
"Courts are not likely to act clairvoyantly and pre-judge alleged constitutional infirmities before they occur, so he is likely going to have to go through the arbitration process," said Jim Godes, a San Diego attorney with expertise in sports law.
"What this means is, if he is right and the process really does deprive him of important rights and leads to an adverse result, he will be starting the court process in a deep hole. You would always rather be the victor in the first proceeding and let the other side appeal, but he may not be so lucky."
Armstrong has repeatedly noted that he has passed more than 500 drug tests without one positive result. USADA does not need a positive test to prove doping charges. In this case, the agency alleges Armstrong routinely "re-infused" his blood to gain oxygen-rich red cells. USADA is likely to base its case on blood samples that suggest blood "manipulation" and the testimony of witnesses - cyclists, coaches, others - who have made deals with USADA.
The notice Armstrong received from USADA in June also went to five others. Two doctors and a trainer in the Armstrong case have received lifetime bans after declining to fight the proposed sanctions. Armstrong's former coach, Johan Bruyneel, and team doctor, Pedro Celaya, also stand accused but have opted to fight the charges in arbitration.