Hein Verbruggen says he did not know about the doping. Photo: AP
The former cycling chief accused of protecting Lance Armstrong has distanced himself from claims that he still ?supports the shamed cyclist, as the doping scandal leaves the US rider increasingly isolated.
Hein Verbruggen, who was president of the International Cycling Union (UCI) when Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times between 1999 and 2005, hit out amid anticipation of the shamed sportsman's first public comments on the scandal.
Dutchman Verbruggen, 71, and the UCI have been under pressure to respond to the failure to detect Armstrong's activities, which were detailed in a devastating US Anti-Doping Agency dossier last week that sent shockwaves through sport.
One suggestion has been that Verbruggen saw Armstrong – who returned to cycling after battling life-threatening cancer – as the standard-bearer of a revived sport that had been tarnished by a succession of doping scandals in the 1990s.
But Verbruggen said that a report in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf "unjustly states that despite USADA's dossier I still insist there is no proof", and he also rejected claims that he took a bribe to cover up a positive test by Armstrong in 1999.
The bribery claims, he said, were "not worth an official statement", and he reiterated that Armstrong, whom the USADA last week said was at the heart of the biggest doping program? in sports history, had never been tested positive by a drug laboratory.
"Therefore it could not have been hidden [by me]," he said in a UCI statement.
Verbruggen's statement emerged as Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport alleged that the USADA 202-page dossier on Armstrong and the more than 1000 pages of supplementary testimony had opened a "Pandora's box" of shady dealings.
Italian investigators had been probing the activities of a sports doctor who was said to have overseen Armstrong's use of banned substances. The doctor, Michele Ferrari, offered an "all inclusive package" to top athletes and cyclists on how to cheat the dope testers, the daily claimed.
Dozens of athletes were reportedly implicated in the so-called "Ferrari system", and sometimes entire cycling teams, with the network involving money laundering, tax evasion and secret Swiss bank accounts.
The Italian probe could yet cause fresh controversy for the embattled sport, as sponsors, including sportswear giant Nike, torpedoed Armstrong from their marketing campaigns and he has stepped down from Livestrong, the cancer foundation he set up.
Armstrong himself accepted that the adverse publicity could impact on the foundation.
He was listed to speak at a gala fund-raiser for Livestrong on Friday night in Austin, Texas to celebrate the foundation's 15th anniversary.
It could prove to be an emotional first appearance in the spotlight since the scandal began to fill the headlines.
His speech will be witnessed by a nominally friendly gathering of Live-strong backers, with organisers planning to release a video recording afterwards on YouTube – so there will be no tough questions about his fall from grace.
David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California and executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute, said that if Armstrong ever wanted to reclaim public respectability, his actions must include a confession.
"The only way they come back is when they take personal responsibility and accountability for what they've done," Carter said. "He has not taken responsibility."
The stage is set for what could be a moment of truth for Armstrong.