Between his Mennonite upbringing in Pennsylvania and his late-stage rally to win the Tour de France, Floyd Landis briefly became one of the sparkling sports stories of 2006.
But a positive test for synthetic testosterone dimmed his triumph. Landis' fierce efforts to clear his name were derailed yesterday when an arbitration panel upheld that result, leaving the American cycling star facing a two-year suspension and the loss of his Tour de France championship.
Landis has denied using performance-enhancing drugs, and he engaged in a contentious hearing with American doping officials this year in hopes of overturning the test result from the 2006 Tour. The arbitration panel considered testimony from that hearing for almost four months before voting 2-1 to uphold the test.
"Today's ruling is a victory for all clean athletes and everyone who values fair and honest competition," United States Anti-Doping Agency general counsel Travis Tygart told the Associated Press.
Landis did not back away from his harsh criticism of doping officials.
"This ruling is a blow to athletes and cyclists everywhere," he said in a statement released by his attorneys. "For the panel to find in favor of USADA when, with respect to so many issues, USADA did not manage to prove even the most basic parts of their case, shows that this system is fundamentally flawed. I am innocent, and we proved I am innocent."
Landis has a month to file a final appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an international arbitration agency based in Lausanne, Switzerland, that hears doping and contract disputes in Olympic and other multinational sports.
In its 23 years of existence, CAS has not blindly backed the decisions of doping officials. In 1996, it overturned an International Olympic Committee decision to strip two Russian athletes of medals because they tested positive for the stimulant bromantan. Two years later, CAS restored a gold medal to Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, who had tested positive for marijuana at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Both of those cases involved questions of whether the substances were actually banned.
Such questions don't exist around synthetic testosterone, though many cycling experts doubt that the muscle-building substance could have helped Landis stage his remarkable comeback.
In other types of cases, CAS has reduced the lengths of suspensions. If Landis appeals and loses, he would be the first rider in the Tour de France's 105-year-history to forfeit his title because of a failed drug test. Spanish rider Oscar Pereiro, who finished second to Landis, would be the 2006 Tour winner.
The ferocity and tenacity of Landis' appeals, both formal and on public venues such as NBC's Tonight Show, have made an impression on John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas and longtime student of sports doping.
"It's been one of a kind," he said of the case. "But from what I've seen and what I've learned about professional cycling, his protests don't mean as much to me [as] what they once might have. There is a lot of lying, and in my experience, these guys don't feel guilty about what they've done."
Hoberman said tests aren't infallible, "but in my opinion, most are very reliable."
Landis' failed appeal comes at a time when cheating accusations have shaken the underpinnings of America's and the world's favorite sports. The NFL's most decorated coach, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, was punished for illicitly videotaping opponents' signals. A wave of baseball players, including Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons, stand accused of ordering human growth hormone from an Internet pharmacy ring. Last month, NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to federal charges that he bet on games he had worked.
On the international stage, Formula One auto racing team McLaren was fined $100 million and stripped of its manufacturer's points for this season after hundreds of pages of technical information about rival Ferrari's car were found in the possession of a top McLaren official.
Cycling fans are more used to cheating scandals than most. The sport has faced doping scandals since British rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died after taking amphetamines during the 1967 Tour de France. This year's race was more damaged than ever as two teams, including that of pre-race favorite Alexander Vinokourov, pulled out after failed tests. After Stage 16, Tour leader Michael Rasmussen was removed from the race by his Rabobank team for allegedly lying about missed drug tests.
"It's a sport that's shown itself to be rotten through and through," Hoberman said. "That brings up a very interesting and difficult question about how you bring about a rebirth in an entire sporting culture."
Cycling officials have stood behind the tests that have caught riders such as Landis.
"Well, all I can say is that justice has been done, and that this is what the UCI felt was correct all along," Pat McQuaid, leader of cycling's world governing body, told the Associated Press. "It's not a great surprise considering how events have evolved. He got a highly qualified legal team who tried to baffle everybody with science and public relations. And in the end the facts stood up."
The World Anti-Doping Agency released a neutral statement on Landis' case: "WADA, as the international independent organization responsible for promoting, coordinating and monitoring the global fight against doping in sport, will now thoroughly review the panel's decision."
The 84-page arbitration ruling found that the initial test performed on Landis did not conform to WADA guidelines. But the carbon-isotope ration analysis performed later found that Landis' positive result was accurate. That was enough to uphold the positive test, the arbitrators agreed.
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said race organizers were always confident in the test. "Now it is proven and confirmed that Landis cheated," he said. "As far as the Tour de France is concerned, Landis was no longer the winner after the positive test of the second sample. According to the rules, [Pereiro] will be promoted to first place."
But others who have followed the sport's doping travails said they hope Landis' case will inspire some re-examining of drug regulation.
"I thought Floyd and his team did a pretty good job of showing some of the flaws with the doping system and the lack of recourse for athletes," said Steve Madden, editor in chief of Bicycling magazine.
"No one other than Floyd Landis will ever definitively know whether he did or did not use synthetic testosterone," said Dr. David Scharff, president of the Baltimore cycling club Lateral Stress Velo. "But, at least as much as I followed the case, there seemed to be so many irregularities in the way the testing was done. I figured they would throw it out, not based on his guilt or innocence, but just that there were too many irregularities to hang a guilty verdict on."
Madden and Scharff said they worry that cycling officials are so intent on catching dopers that the details of individual cases might be ignored.
"For whatever reason, good or bad, it just seems like the cycling world is so intent on this anti-doping witch hunt that there is almost a joy in catching people and burning them at the stake," Scharff said.
Cycling enthusiasts remain fascinated with Landis, who became a media darling during last year's Tour De France as reporters flocked to his predominantly Mennonite hometown of Farmersville, Pa., to tell the story of his unusual background. A few weeks ago, Madden watched riders swarm around Landis at an amateur event in Philadelphia.
"This will be interesting to watch because he's not a guy who's going to just crawl away with his tail between his legs," Scharff said.
From a broader perspective, he said, another rider's fall from grace won't kill widespread passion for the sport.
"The story makes me sad," Madden said. "It's such a beautiful sport, and you're talking about only 300 or so guys at an elite level who do this stuff, but it sullies the 8 million of us who ride for fun. That said, I'm still going to get on my bike tomorrow."
Sun reporter Michael Hill and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
The case at a glance
What happened: A three-man panel upheld a positive doping test from Landis at the 2006 Tour de France. Landis receives a two-year ban from cycling, retroactive to Jan. 30. One panelist dissented.
What's next: Landis has a month to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, where much of the same evidence would be heard by a different set of arbitrators. Their decision would be final. Landis already has spent about $2 million for his defense.