Never one to back away from a fight, Lance Armstrong is finally giving in and the cost of quitting is steep: His seven Tour de France titles are gone.
Following the cyclist's decision to not pursue arbitration in the drug case brought against him by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the federal organisation erased 14 years of his career - including his record seven Tour de France titles - and Friday banned him for life from the sport that made him a hero to millions of cancer survivors after concluding he used banned substances.
Travis Tygart, USADA's chief executive, said the International Cycling Union, which had backed Armstrong's legal challenge to USADA's authority, was "bound to recognise our decision and impose it" as a signer of the World Anti-Doping Code.
USADA said it expected cycling's governing body to take similar action, not wasting much time in hanging the label of drug cheat on an athlete who overcame life-threatening testicular cancer and has done years of work in his foundation's support for cancer research.
"As a result of Mr Armstrong's decision, USADA is required under the applicable rules, including the World Anti-Doping Code under which he is accountable, to disqualify his competitive results and suspend him from all future competition," the USADA released in a statement.
But the International Cycling Union (UCI) was measured in its response, saying it first wanted a full explanation on why Armstrong should relinquish titles he won from 1999 through 2005. And Nike, the US sporting goods giant, said it would stand by the Texan in a statement and added: "We are saddened that Lance Armstrong may no longer be able to participate in certain competitions and his titles appear to be impacted."
Armstrong said he has grown tired of defending himself in a seemingly never-ending fight against charges that he doped while piling up more Tour victories than anyone ever.
He has consistently pointed to the hundreds of drug tests that he passed as proof of his innocence during his extraordinary run of Tour titles from 1999 to 2005.
"There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough.' For me, that time is now," Armstrong said on Thursday night, hours before the deadline to enter arbitration.
He called the USADA investigation an "unconstitutional witch hunt".
"I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999," he said.
"The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today - finished with this nonsense."
Armstrong could lose other awards, event titles and cash earnings, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) might look at the bronze medal he won in the 2000 Games.
"It's a heartbreaking example of win-at-all-costs overtaking the fair and safe option," Tygart said. "There's no success in cheating to win."
Armstrong insists his decision is not an admission of guilt but a refusal to enter an arbitration process he believes is unfair.
"USADA cannot assert control of a professional international sport and attempt to strip my seven Tour de France titles," he said.
"I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours."
The organisers of the Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organisation, said they will not comment until hearing from USADA and the UCI.
Armstrong walked away from the sport for good in 2011 without being charged following a two-year federal criminal investigation into many of the same accusations he faces from USADA.
The federal probe was closed in February, but USADA announced in June it had evidence Armstrong used banned substances and methods - and encouraged their use by teammates.
The agency also said it had blood tests from 2009 and 2010 that were "fully consistent" with blood doping.
Included in USADA's evidence were e-mails written by Armstrong's former US Postal Service teammate Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after a positive drug test. Landis's e-mails to a USA Cycling official detailed allegations of a complex doping programme on the team.
USADA also said it had 10 former Armstrong teammates ready to testify against him.
Other than suggesting they include Landis and Tyler Hamilton, both of whom have admitted to doping offences, the agency has refused to say who they are or specifically what they would say.
"There is zero physical evidence to support [the] outlandish and heinous claims," Armstrong said.
"The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of [doping] controls I have passed with flying colours."
Armstrong sued USADA in an attempt to block the case and was supported by the UCI.
A judge threw out that case on Monday, siding with USADA despite questioning the agency's pursuit of Armstrong in his retirement.
"USADA's conduct raises serious questions about whether its real interest in charging Armstrong is to combat doping, or if it is acting according to less noble motives," such as politics or publicity," US District Judge Sam Sparks wrote.
But the cyclist did something virtually unthinkable for him: He quit before a fight was over, a stunning move for an athlete who built his reputation on not only beating cancer, but forcing himself through gruelling off-season workouts no one else could match, then crushing his rivals in the Alps and the Pyrenees.
"Today I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances," he said. "I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities."
Armstrong was still relatively unknown in the US until he won the Tour de France for the first time in 1999. It was the ultimate comeback tale: When diagnosed with cancer, doctors had given him less than a 50 per cent chance of survival before surgery and brutal cycles of chemotherapy saved his life.
Armstrong's riveting victories, his work for cancer awareness and his gossip-page romances with rocker Sheryl Crow, fashion designer Tory Burch and actress Kate Hudson made him a figure who transcended sports.
His dominance of the Tour de France elevated the sport's popularity in the US to unprecedented levels.
His story and success helped sell millions of the "Livestrong" plastic yellow wrist bracelets, and enabled him to enlist legislators and global policymakers to promote cancer awareness and research.
His Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised nearly $500 million (Dh1.83 billion) since its founding in 1997. Jeffery C Gervey, chairman of the foundation, issued a statement of support.
"Faced with a biased process whose outcome seems predetermined, Lance chose to put his family and his foundation first," Gervey said.
"The leadership of the Lance Armstrong Foundation remain incredibly proud of our founder's achievements, both on and off the bike."
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