It really does get worse before it gets better.
As if Tuesday’s sucker punch about Alexandre Vinokourov’s positive doping test wasn’t bad enough, yesterday the Tour de France walked straight into a one-two combination which threatens to reduce the race itself to little more than a distracting sideshow.
First Cristian Moreni was thrown out of the race after a positive result for testosterone. As a result, his entire Cofidis team was withdrawn in line with a voluntary pre-Tour agreement signed with a number of other teams.
And then, late yesterday evening, came the devastating news that race leader Michael Rasmussen, who only hours before had won stage 16, had been sacked with immediate effect by his team, Rabobank. The reason given was that he had lied to team bosses about his whereabouts in June.
So now a stuttering Tour has lost a total of four riders – including the winners of four of the last nine stages – and two entire teams to drug-related events. To paraphrase a well-known expression, to ban one rider can be seen as an unfortunate accident, to ban two looks like carelessness, but four …
While Moreni’s appears to be an open-and-shut case (pending confirmation from the B-sample test, of course), with Rasmussen it was more a case of innocent until highly suspicious.
It’s important to stress that Rasmussen did not have to be withdrawn. Applying the letter of the law, he has neither tested positive nor registered the three strikes necessary to incur a ban. However, once it was revealed that the rider had lied to his own team about his location, the team really had little choice. At the very least, Rasumssen’s actions were unbelievably naïve and stupid in this modern age; at worst, well, draw your own conclusions. It certainly lends considerable weight of circumstantial evidence, doesn’t it?
Rabobank should be praised for acting quickly and decisively. It is no small decision to voluntarily withdraw and sack the yellow jersey wearer, when it would have been all too easy to delay and sandbag all the way to Paris.
There is now a danger that this swathe of high profile scandals could easily turn into a McCarthy-style witch hunt, with the slightest allegation being immediately assumed to be proof of guilt. And it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of riders are undoubtedly racing ‘clean’. But something clearly needs to be done, because public perception is at an all-time low. Before his withdrawal, Rasmussen was roundly booed on yesterday’s podium, something which I can never remember happening to Lance Armstrong in his seven dominant years, despite all the (unproven) allegations against him and the general murmurs among both public and press.
In a sense, cycling has become a victim of its own vigilance, trapped in a vicious cycle where more testing catches more cheats, which blackens the sport’s reputation and leads to even more testing, and so on. No other sport tests its participants more frequently or rigorously, and to be fair to both the UCI and the ASO the organisation which runs the Tour), despite all the petty politics that goes on they have been pretty consistent in their punishment of offenders, regardless of their status.
It’s difficult to say whether the events of the last two weeks indicate that cycling is winning the war on drugs (because the authorities are now catching so many cheats) or losing it (because there are clearly still plenty of people willing to cheat). You can interpret it any way you like, but the one sure thing is that the war IS being fought unflinchingly and with great energy by the UCI, and that’s all anyone can really ask of a governing body.
And let us not use this as an excuse to use cycling as the scapegoat for the sporting world’s wider malaise. From Ben Johnson to Barry Bonds, the list of the guilty, the highly suspicious and the never-been-caughts permeates every corner of competitive sport. It’s just that some sports police the issue far more stringently than others.
For example, it was only last week that golfing legend Gary Player wagged the finger of suspicion at his own sport. Asked if he would be surprised by any positive findings, he said, "No, not surprise me because I know - I know for a fact - that there are golfers, whether it's HGH, creatine or steroids. And the greatest thing that the R&A, the USGA and the PGA can do is have tests at random. It's absolutely essential that we do that. We're dreaming if we think it's not going to come into golf.”
Cycling should be praised – not pilloried – for its hard-line attitude to drugs testing and punishment. It is the responsibility of the riders, not the authorities, to ensure they are operating within the rules. After all, no matter how attentive and strict a parent is, if a child wants to be naughty, they will always find a way.
The war has only just begun. Who knows when – or indeed if – it will ever end? But maybe it’s about time more sports stopped turning a blind eye to the problem that exists on their doorsteps.
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