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The Tour of Scandals begins...
 
By Guest Contributor
Date: 7/8/2007
The Tour of Scandals begins...
 

The Tour of Scandals begins...
"... the events of May last year still hangs like a thundercloud above the sport. Where progress has been made, it has exclusively been at the initiative of national anti-doping authorities..."

Michael Akinde

June 30, 2006. The confirmation of Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso's involvement in Operation Puerto, and their subsequent exclusion from the race hit the Tour de France like a bombshell. After a drawn out battle with the ASO, the entire Astana-Wurth squad were forced to pack up their bags and leave. Jean Marie-Leblanc talked the talk about getting an open Tour, with clean riders.

We all know how that went.

Fast forward to July 6, 2007.

With the 94th Tour de France set to kick off this week, the Cycling world is quickly making a farce of itself.

Of the varying number of riders implicated in the Operation Puerto debacle, only a few have had their case properly tried, and the events of May last year still hangs like a thundercloud above the sport. Where progress has been made, it has exclusively been at the initiative of national anti-doping authorities, not least the activities of CONI prosecutor Ettore Torri.

The latest UCI attempt to resolve the case is the ”Riders commitment to a new cycling”. In theory, this paper would allow the UCI carry out DNA comparisons on the entire peloton, thus allowing the positive identification of riders involved with Eufemanio Fuentes, and the partial exoneration of riders who did not have blood bags stored in the doctor's apartments. In practice, however, there are still legal and political difficulties standing in the way of such a resolution.

 ”Men in Black”
At the same time, the UCI, in the person of Anne Griper, caused additional furor in the media when they admitted to pursuing a number of top riders – melodramatically referred to as the ”Men in Black”. The expectations of a big doping bust built up by the UCI were only partially fulfilled, when Mattias Kessler was suspended for riding with irregular testosterone. The result is yet another doping cloud across the Tour, with what seems almost like open warfare breaking out between the media and certain teams.

As if that were not enough, the confession of the former riders from Team Telekom to having doped with EPO in the period when they dominated the Tour, has cast long shadows over the present. A major part of the reason for this is the decision of the ASO to pursue the 1996 winner of the Tour, Bjarne Riis, for the crimes of his past. This stance seems peculiarly strange, when at the same time the ASO happily welcomes the participation of Erik Zabel (who also confessed), while many other personnel who have confessed (or been convicted of) doping make their daily rounds in the Tour de France circus. While professing to take a firm anti-doping stance, the ASO instead sends out a firm message to current and former riders, that any connection of the Tour de France with doping is unacceptable.

Such behaviour is tragic, given the state in which Cycling is today. The cat was let out of the bag ten years ago; and anyone who doubted that it was blood red, had their doubts erased last year. The seeming belief by the ASO that it can be kept inconspicuous if just nobody talked about it, is naive at best.

Amnesty?
Last week, the New York times brought an interview with WADA chief Dick Pound, in which he echoed a sentiment that has been proposed many times in the past months:

”Cycling’s drug problem has become so messy,” Pound said, ”that it might be time to grant riders and team officials, both past and present, an amnesty in exchange for their complete testimony about doping.”

Although many in the Cycling world fail, or don't want to see the connection, Cycling's present and future is inexorably linked to the past. This is so, not only because Cycling is a sport with a history (the Tour de France, for example, is the premier race not because of its sportive challenges - both the Giro and the Vuelta are arguably more exciting - but because of its rich history); but also because the team managers and staff of today are in large part the riders of yesterday. For the sport to have credibility, the public must be able to believe in the credibility of what they are told.

An amnesty and confessions about the scope of doping (not necessarily fully public) would go a long way toward solving this challenge. But it won't be enough. At the same time, the Cycling world needs to construct an anti-doping system that both the public and riders can trust. This requires at least three improvements.

More Vigorous Efforts
First, the anti-doping system needs to become far more rigorous. In this respect, two of the teams who have stood most in focus the past few months lead the way, demonstrating that it is possible to carry out testing far more rigorously and extensively than hitherto envisioned. And while both Team CSC and Team T-Mobile belong among the economical heavy-weights, the small continental Team Slipstream demonstrates that it is possible to carry out stronger testing without breaking the bank.

A rigorous anti-doping system with frequent out of competition testing and blood profiles, administrated by an independent entity, and applying to all the top-level teams would go a long way toward restoring public trust in the sport.

Judicial Harmony
Second, the judicial aspects of the anti-doping system need to be in place. It should be clear to the riders and the public, what does and does not constitute a doping infringement, which can be accepted by all the parties involved in the sport. The recent case of Alessandro Petacchi's salbutamol levels is a case in point, as the public (and no doubt many riders) are left confused and questioning. At the same time, Leonardo Piepoli will be having his case tried in Monaco, with people already speculating that his verdict will differ from that of Petacchi. Such confusion and speculation should be unnecessary.

Responsibility & Fairness
Third, the people behind the riders, the team managers, the doctors, and the coaches need to be held responsible to some extent for the riders they manage. Such a development can obviously be taken too far, but the current situation, where all of the blame and punishment falls on the riders, is equally obviously unfair. A balance is required, to help ensure that riders are not encouraged or forced into doping by unscrupulous people, and then hung out to dry.

All of this will require hard work, difficult negotiations, and a strong vision for a new cycling if it is ever to be realized.

In the meantime, the Tour de France caravan has started on its way. The ASO is once again talking about an open Tour with clean riders; Operation Puerto hovers like a cloud above several of the top contenders, and the AIGCP is in dissolution with confidential reports about irregular blood values in certain riders being mentioned. That the media has practically ignored the latter, very unsettling, reports simply demonstrates how heavily doping has laid its shadow across the opening of the Tour.

More or less reliable opinions and predictions about who will win the Tour, what riders will take which jerseys and stages are current in the media. Here is one prediction that is almost guaranteed to come true:

It will take a miracle for the Tour de France 2007 to avoid being marred by at least one doping scandal.

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