Los Angeles (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors on Friday dropped an investigation centered on whether seven-time Tour De France champion Lance Armstrong and his teammates cheated the sponsor of their bike racing team with a secret doping programme.
The decision means that Armstrong, a cancer survivor and one of his sport's greatest champions who has always vehemently denied using performance-enhancing drugs, will not face charges following the two-year-long probe.
"I am gratified to learn that the US Attorney's Office is closing its investigation. It is the right decision and I commend them for reaching it," Armstrong, 40, said in a statement released through his spokesman.
"I look forward to continuing my life as a father, a competitor, and an advocate in the fight against cancer without this distraction," he said.
Prosecutors have said little publicly about the case and U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr., in a brief written statement, announced simply that his office was "closing an investigation into members and associates of a bicycle racing team owned in part by Lance Armstrong."
A source familiar with the investigation, however, told Reuters that prosecutors had been looking into whether the team had defrauded its main sponsor, the U.S. Postal Service, by doping.
United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) chief Travis Tygart said on Friday that the end of the federal probe into Armstrong and his team did not mean that the USADA would drop its own investigation.
"Unlike the U.S. Attorney, USADA's job is to protect clean sport rather than enforce specific criminal laws," Tygart said in a written statement. "Our investigation into doping in the sport of cycling is continuing and we look forward to obtaining the information developed during the federal investigation."
Doping, or using performance enhancing substances in professional sports, is not in itself a federal crime.
DOPING RUMORS LINGER
The Texas-born Armstrong, who won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times, retired from professional cycling last year.
He remains the face of his Austin-based anti-cancer charity, Livestrong, known for its popular yellow plastic bracelets.
Despite having never failed a doping test, Armstrong has never been able to shake allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs to help fuel his brilliant career.
Former teammate and deposed Tour de France winner Floyd Landis accused Armstrong in 2010 not only of using performance-enhancing drugs but teaching others how to avoid being caught.
Landis said he witnessed some of his teammates, including Armstrong, use illegal drugs to boost performance and endurance.
The wife of one-time Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu has also said that Armstrong admitted to using illegal drugs.
Sports Illustrated magazine has reported that Betsy Andreu said in a sworn deposition that Armstrong admitted to his cancer doctors that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, including EPO, growth hormone, cortisone, steroids and testosterone.
Armstrong has had ties to controversial Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who has publicly defended the use of EPO but has denied helping athletes enhance performance through doping.
The United States Anti-Doping Agency previously said it has tested Armstrong 27 times since 2001, adding that the totals do not include tests done by international organizations.
Earlier accusations that the American had used EPO during the 1999 Tour de France led to an investigation supported by the International Cycling Union that cleared Armstrong of doping.
The investigation followed accusations published by the French newspaper L'Equipe that six of his urine samples from the 1999 Tour showed traces of EPO.
"Today when I heard the decision my first thought was, Lance won again," said Peter Flax, editor in chief of Bicycling magazine, who said that his readers were split over whether Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs.
"It kind of made me crack a little bit of a smile because Lance has always found a way to win and today was no different," Flax said.
(Additional reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Sandra Maler)
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