Lance Armstrong: Has Drug Probe Gone Too Far?

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Lance Armstrong, riding for Team RadioShack, crosses the finish line of the 196-km Stage 13 of the Tour de France on July 17, 2010, in Revel

Jeff Novitzky, an investigator for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has been called the Eliot Ness of the steroid era. In 2002, when he was an Internal Revenue Service special agent, he spearheaded the landmark probe into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), which was supplying performance-enhancing drugs to several high-profile athletes, including, allegedly, home-run king Barry Bonds. The BALCO case (which also involved money laundering, which is where the IRS comes in) thrust steroids and sports into the spotlight. The relentless Novitzky, who dove into Dumpsters to collect evidence, earned a slice of fame too.

Novitzky contributed to the 2007 Mitchell Report, baseball's independent investigation into steroid use among its players, by persuading former New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kurt Radomski, a supplier of steroids to Major League players, to become an informant. He's also investigating whether former pitcher Roger Clemens perjured himself before Congress by denying under oath that he used performance-enhancing drugs. It's serious business: former track star Marion Jones pleaded guilty to making false statements to Novitzky about her own steroid use and went to prison for it. "He's kind of an amazing phenomenon," says Peter Keane, professor and dean emeritus at Golden Gate University School of Law, who has closely followed Novitzky's work. "He's kind of a bloodhound. No matter what swamp or tree you hide in, he's going to find you."

Novitzky moved to the FDA in 2008, where another alleged steroid connection provided his biggest target yet. That target is not hiding in a tree but riding his bike through the Pyrenees: seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who has been accused by disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis of doping.

Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after failing a drug test, has admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career, following a somewhat pathetic campaign to prove that he didn't cheat on the Tour. He has sensationally accused Armstrong of doping while they both rode for the team sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service earlier in the decade. Among Landis' allegations: the team sold some of its bikes to fund the doping program. If the team did in fact use sponsorship funds from the Postal Service to buy drugs, the government could prosecute Armstrong and his team for fraud. Cue Novitzky.

Novitzky has reportedly contacted several of Armstrong's former USPS teammates, and the New York Daily News reported that the government subpoenaed three-time Tour de France champ Greg LeMond to testify. LeMond loathes Armstrong and for years has accused him of using performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong has long denied taking any such substances and has never failed a drug test. He's dismissed Landis as a proven liar and LeMond as a guy with a big chip on his shoulder. Armstrong says he has not been subpoenaed and has yet to meet with Novitzky but will do so as long as the case doesn't become "a witch hunt."

In building a case against Armstrong, Novitzky isn't just taking on another big-name athlete. He's chasing down an icon, an inspirational figure whose high-profile battle against cancer and heroic fundraising efforts to increase research and support for cancer patients have transcended sports. "Does the public care about drugs in sports anymore? I don't think so," says Don Catlin, a pharmacologist and drug-testing pioneer who founded the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab. "The public is pretty ho-hum. But people aren't exactly ho-hum when Lance Armstrong is involved."

Novitzky is picking the biggest fight of his life. "I think we're possibly looking at BALCO Part 2," says Victor Conte, the founder of BALCO, who pleaded guilty to steroid distribution in 2005. Novitzky, the bald, lanky, mysterious man who emerges from the shadows only to attend steroid hearings in Congress or the federal courtroom, actually grew up just a few miles from Conte's BALCO offices. The son of a high school baseball coach, Novitzky excelled in sports, even clearing 7 ft. as a high school high jumper. He played college basketball at San Jose State.

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