'A great champion'
Sports minister 'sorry' Armstrong to cut French races
PARIS (AP) -- French Sports Minister Marie-George Buffet said Wednesday she was "sorry" that American cyclist Lance Armstrong has decided to cut all French races apart from the Tour de France out of his 2001 schedule.
But Buffet, speaking at a press gathering in Paris, stressed that "each person must answer for his actions" within the context of the crackdown on drugs in sports.
Armstrong's 2001 schedule, published earlier this week on his official Web site, listed no races in France apart from the Tour de France, in contrast to last season.
"I am sorry because he is a great champion, because the French admire him a lot," Buffet said of Armstrong's decision.
Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team is the subject of a French judicial investigation into whether the squad used banned substances during last year's Tour de France.
"There is the fight against doping," Buffet added. "But each person must answer for his actions.
"But that should not stop him from taking part," Buffet said.
Last week, a judicial source said that urine samples taken from the team during the 2000 Tour had been undergoing analysis to determine whether the riders took performance-enhancing drugs.
In December, Buffet said French judicial authorities wanted the urine samples for their investigation, which was opened in November based on an anonymous tip.
Armstrong, a Texan, came back from testicular cancer to win the 1999 and 2000 Tours. He has repeatedly denied taking illegal substances, and U.S. Postal Service officials have said the team respects anti-doping rules.
Armstrong's 2000 schedule included four French cycling competitions in addition to the Tour de France.
Buffet also spoke out Wednesday against reported moves by two of the Tour de France's main sponsors to review their backing of the race whose image was tarnished by a doping scandal in 1998.
"You cannot have benefited for years from the positive image of the Tour de France, and then leave when things are difficult," Buffet said.
French sports newspaper L'Equipe cited reports Wednesday that French bank Credit Lyonnais and American drinks manufacturer Coca Cola were considering withdrawing their full sponsorship of the Tour de France.
"Sponsorship ... must help the renewal of the Tour de France, in other words, the fight against doping," said Buffet, who appealed to sponsors not to withdraw their support.
A French court last month convicted eight people in connection with the 1998 Tour de France doping scandal, imposing suspended sentences and fines of up to 50,000 francs (US$7,000).
Most of those sentenced were former members of the Festina cycling team, which was expelled from the 1998 Tour after a stash of products, notably the performance-enhancer EPO, was found in a team car.
The fall trial in Lille in northern France led to a series of frank testimonies about the use of banned substances in the world of cycling.