PARIS - An independent commission on Monday accused top leaders of cycling's world body of protecting Lance Armstrong and other drug cheats to protect the sports reputation.
The commission also said doping remains widespread and called on the International Cycling Union (UCI) to enact widespread changes.
The Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) was set up following allegations of corruption to cover up Armstrong's drug failures.
UCI president Brian Cookson said the report highlighted "that in the past the UCI suffered severely from a lack of good governance with individuals taking crucial decisions alone, many of which undermined anti-doping efforts." The CIRC report pointed a damning finger at past presidents Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid, and Cookson stated: "The UCI management has changed, we no longer close our eyes to doping.
"The style of leadership of Hein Verbruggen is criticised in the report and that style of leadership led to some of the major errors.
"Image and the business of the sport were put before integrity and transparency and honesty, that approach was taken too far."I hope these two won't have any role in cycling in the future." Armstrong, who defeated cancer to go on and win seven straight Tour de France races from 1999 to 2005, was stripped of his titles in 2012 and banned from the sport for life. The fallen US cycling hero, 43, now admits taking banned substances.
The commission said it found no links between donations amounting to $125,000 he made to the UCI and a cover up of his drug failures. The CIRC gave a damning assessment however of efforts by Verbruggen and McQuaid to shield Armstrong from investigation.
"Numerous examples have been identified showing that UCI leadership 'defended' or 'protected' Lance Armstrong and took decisions because they were favourable to him. This was in circumstances where there was strong reason to suspect him of doping," said the commission report.
'Exempted' from drug rules
The UCI "purposely limited the scope" of one 2005 independent investigation into Armstrong and the rider's lawyers wrote portions of its final report, the commission said.
"UCI exempted Lance Armstrong from rules, failed to target test him despite the suspicions, and publicly supported him against allegations of doping, even as late as 2012." The commission said "requesting and accepting donations from Lance Armstrong, given the suspicions, left UCI open to criticism." The head of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) called for the prosecution of Verbruggen and McQuaid over the alleged cover-up.
Travis Tygart said that letting Armstrong's lawyer rewrite the independent report was "a stunning example of deceit." "USADA will work with the current UCI leadership to obtain the evidence of this sordid incident to ensure that all anti-doping rule violations related to this conduct are fully investigated and prosecuted, where possible," said Tygart, who guided the investigation that finally brought Armstrong down.
In 1999, Armstrong was allowed to provide a backdated doctor's prescription "to avoid sanction" during the 1999 Tour de France when four out of 15 tests taken showed banned corticosteroids, the CIRC said.
When Armstrong made a comeback in 2009, the UCI allowed him to compete in the Tour Down Under in Australia even though he had not been available for testing for the previous six months, as required.
The commission said it had information that McQuaid "made a sudden u-turn" to let Armstrong return 13 days early, against the advice of UCI staff.
The same day that Armstrong was allowed into the Tour Down Under, the American said he would ride in the Tour of Ireland. McQuaid's brother was an organiser of the race.
The commission said Armstrong was seen as the "perfect choice to lead the sport's renaissance" after the Festina drug scandal on the Tour de France in 1998.
"The fact that he was American opened up a new continent for the sport, he had beaten cancer and the media quickly made him a global star." The commission highlighted lapses in cycling's general anti-drug regime including drug testers sometimes leaking information about who would be the target of tests.
One expert told the commission that up to 90 per cent of the race peloton was still doping. Others gave lower estimates.
It said there were "serious allegations" that riders from one unnamed country paid what was called an "anti-doping tax" to avoid tests. The commission said the the accusations were received late in its mandate so had been passed to the UCI for further investigation.
"The significant risk for cycling is that the number of doping scandals and damage to the sport's reputation will cause both existing sponsors to leave the sport and deter new sponsors," said the report, highlighting the exit of Rabobank, a Dutch bank, in 2012.
Neither Verbruggen nor McQuaid made an immediate comment.