In 1999, reeling from a drug scandal that ruined one of the sport’s top teams, professional cycling was seeking a hero. Someone inspirational who could elevate the sport’s profile and expand its audience. Lance Armstrong — handsome, American, a cancer survivor and media darling — fit the bill perfectly.

In the decade that followed, the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport’s governing body, helped Armstrong become the face of modern cycling. Even after doping allegations, the organization stood by its “star athlete,” turning a blind eye to his and others’ violations of the UCI’s own anti-doping policy.

“To defend the image of the sport, they defended the champions,” one UCI employee said.

These details come from a scathing 227-page report issued Monday by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission, which interviewed more than 170 people affiliated with the sport for a yearlong investigation into its doping culture. Appointed by UCI President Brian Cookson, the commission represents the start of yet another effort to rebuild cycling in the wake of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) 2012 exposure of Armstrong’s years at the center of a sophisticated doping program.

But first comes the reckoning. The commission is unforgiving in its indictment of the UCI, which it said turned a blind eye to the performance-enhancing drugs that had “infested” the sport. It gave “preferential status” to high-profile athletes — particularly Armstrong — and sought to silence or smear whistleblowers rather than investigate their claims. As for the union’s own anti-drug rules? They were merely for show.

“The emphasis of UCI’s anti-doping policy was … to give the impression that UCI was tough on doping rather than actually being good at anti-doping,” the report said.

The report also details Armstrong’s undue influence over cycling officials, who allowed him to compete even as his tests for performance-enhancing drugs were turning up positive. As early as 1999, the year of Armstrong’s first Tour de France win, the UCI accepted a back-dated prescription for corticosteroids to explain positive test results during the race, although the document had clearly been falsified.

In the following decade, both the UCI and Armstrong’s lawyer Mark S. Levinstein became heavily involved in the writing of the purportedly independent Vrijman Report, meant to investigate claims that Armstrong had used the common blood booster EPO in the 1999 race. UCI and Levinstein were allowed to define the scope of the investigation and redact portions of the report, with the main goal “to ensure that the report reflected UCI’s and Lance Armstrong’s personal conclusions,” according to the commission.

The Vrijman Report ultimately cleared Armstrong of suspicion, but the UCI and Levinstein’s involvement in its writing were never publicly acknowledged.

“This is again consistent with UCI leadership’s approach of prioritizing the fight against WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency] and the protection of its star athlete,” the commission concluded.

The commission report cited a 2012 e-mail sent by UCI lawyer Philippe Verbiest to then-President Pat McQuaid amid the USADA investigation into Armstrong’s drug use as “summing up” the organization’s attitude toward its top athlete.

“For the sake of the image UCI has an interest that LA [Armstrong] is acquitted as otherwise UCI will be seen as not having done its job properly and as having ‘protected’ LA. In addition the whole LA period, cycling’s pop star and above all cycling’s credibility will be in the drains. On the other hand, for the sake of the fight against doping UCI cannot object (or be seen to object) to the truth coming out,” the e-mail said.

To the UCI, Armstrong had become as much as a symbol for cycling as a competitor in the sport, the report said. An attack against him was seen as an attack on cycling itself.

“There was a tacit exchange of favors between the UCI leadership and Lance Armstrong, and they presented a common front against anyone who dared to attack him,” the report read. “The UCI leadership did not know how to differentiate between Armstrong the hero, seven-time winner of the Tour, cancer survivor, huge financial and media success and a role model for thousands of fans, from Lance Armstrong the cyclist, a member of the peloton with the same rights and obligations as any other professional cyclist.”

Despite these details of his inappropriate influence, the commission stops short of accusing Armstrong of bribery. It found no evidence for two major allegations against Armstrong: one that he had donated $25,000 to the UCA to make a positive test “disappear” during the 2001 Tour de Suisse and another that he had helped finance the Vrijman Report — though it criticized the UCI for accepting such large sums from an athlete, particularly one under suspicion for drug use. The report also notes that Armstrong’s doping wasn’t much different from the kinds of practices that had become endemic to the sport.

Most of the commission’s criticism is directed not at Armstrong but at UCI leadership. Two former UCI presidents, Hein Verbruggen and McQuaid, are accused of prioritizing business over sporting conduct. The position of president is described as “autocratic” in the report, while McQuaid is termed a “weak leader.”

Verbruggen, who read an advanced copy of the report, told the Dutch news agency ANP that he considered it unfair, according to the New York Times.

“There is a lot of what we could have done better, but that’s easy to say 25 years later,” he said. “And there is a lot of criticism of me; I was a dictator and was too close to Armstrong. They had obviously come up with something.”

Both Verbruggen and McQuaid were among those interviewed by the commission.

Cycling’s increased visibility and commercial success under Verbruggen and McQuaid’s leadership paralleled the rise of synthetic hormones like EPO. The use of these drugs made it impossible for clean riders to compete, and by the end of the 1990s, the report said, athletes faced the decision of doping or dropping out.

That culture persists today, even in the wake of the Armstrong scandal. One cycling professional told the commission he suspected that 90 percent of the peleton (the main crowd of cyclists in a given race) was doping, though it was impossible to tell who.

The report concludes with more than 10 pages of recommendations to combat cycling’s drug culture, including the establishment of a whistleblower desk, the creation of a more effective anti-doping strategy, working with pharmacies and national governments to secure supply chains and combat illegal drug use, and the implementation of nighttime drug tests (which prevent “micro-dosing”).

Armstrong, who was interviewed by the commission and is fighting to overturn a lifetime ban from cycling imposed by the USADA, welcomed the report.

“I am grateful to [the commission] for seeking the truth and allowing me to assist in that search. I am deeply sorry for many things I have done,” he said in a statement. “It is my hope that revealing the truth will lead to a bright, dope-free future for the sport I love, and will allow all young riders emerging from small towns throughout the world in years to come to chase their dreams without having to face the lose-lose choices that so many of my friends, teammates and opponents faced.”

UCI President Cookson also praised the report.

“It is clear from reading this report 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; put itself in an extraordinary position of proximity to certain riders; and wasted a lot of its time and resources in open conflict with organizations such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA),” he said in a statement on the organization’s Web site. “I am absolutely determined to use the CIRC’s report to ensure that cycling continues the process of fully regaining the trust of fans, broadcasters and all the riders that compete clean.”